By: Daniel Reynolds
Upon approaching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, ungainly title and all, we have to try to digest all of its contradictions. It’s a sequel to a film that was largely thought unnecessary – 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, itself a prequel to a tired six film franchise whose star, Charlton Heston, left after only the second film (albeit with a cameo in the sixth). The film’s star is undoubtedly Andy Serkis who, despite attempts at in-person acting, has made his name by not showing his face and instead being the very best motion capture actor around. The film is directed by Matt Reeves who has a resume that includes Cloverfield and, somehow, the TV show Felicity. It is a largely gloomy film released at a time when (Batman aside) movies are typically seen as positive rah-rah affairs meant to leave smiles on people’s faces. And most importantly, despite all these odd dichotomies: it is a very good movie.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (or Dawn, because this is getting ridiculous already) begins in the area around former San Francisco. I say former because, as a chilling opening montage reports, most of the world’s human population has been wiped out by what’s referred to as the Simian Flu. It feels unfair to blame the apes for this onslaught, given that it probably had something to do with James Franco and his lab from the first film, but that’s humanity for you. Now the apes are living a largely human-free existence in the mountains around San Fran, looking and feeling better for it. Their leader, Caesar, has become a family man, er, ape with a wife and son. His followers, including the lovably bulbous Maurice and the scarred Koba, revere him appropriately. If you saw Rise, you’ll remember Caesar as the first ape to talk. In short, ten years on, things are going pretty well in the funky tree top enclaves of the new dominant species. Except then some jerkface dude shows up, and shit goes sideways.
Said jerkface, Carver (Kirk Acevedo), is part of a small group of humans led by good guy Malcolm (played by all-time good guy Jason Clarke) who’ve ventured into the surrounding forests for a specific reason. As it turns out, the apes have built their home on a power generating dam that represents the last hope the humans of SF have at (a) continuing to maintain and, ideally, grow what’s left of humanity and (b) communicating with whoever else may be out there. For Malcolm, his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and wife, Ellie (Keri Russell), the dam is their only chance to avoid a slide back into the medieval lawlessness from which they’ve all barely survived. For the leader of the human camp, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman at half-speed), nothing should stand in the way of this progress. The apes however are understandably uneasy about humanity’s incursion into their home. It’s a perfect deadlock. Neither side wants a war, both sides want to live, and everyone will do almost anything to reach what they believe to be the right goal.
The screenplay of Dawn, written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, offers a fantastic nod in the direction of this moral complexity and revels, for better or worse, in these contradictions. For the audience, the initial notion is to sympathize with the humans. With Clarke and his broad, friendly face, this is easy. The secondary human characters don’t fare as well. We’re given only cursory sketches and moments of overt – sometimes plodding – thoughtfulness to make them, you know, human. It’s the usual small time stuff that can get lost in the shuffle of big time film making. But what grand film making it is. Reeves’ direction builds adroitly on the script’s uncomfortably tense tone, and capably smooths out any odd character bumps with clever spectacle. We know confrontation is inevitable (if dawn for some, then night for others), but Reeves patiently draws out the dance to its logical, thunderous end point. To this end, Dawn moves along the line between summer blockbuster and moody think piece as well as any film of its magnitude. This is largely thanks to Serkis’ continued excellence as Caesar, his commitment to motion captured acting, and the tremendous empathy engendered by this central combination of heart and technical wizardry.
What becomes most fascinating, by film’s end, is the question of what’s next. As Dawn establishes, the ongoing saga of Caesar has become one for the ages, each new chapter full of potential unachieved before in film. While we identify more readily with Clarke, Russell and Oldman, it is Serkis’ Caesar that compels and confounds us. We stare into his haunted eyes and wonder what he is thinking, what he feels. What Reeves and his technical crew have achieved here is nothing short of revelatory. While Gollum is a fun (albeit painful) character, he could not support a film alone; we’d watch a whole movie of Caesar. Ah, but then at last, the final contradiction is there. Dawn presents us with a moral quagmire, a problem with a solution that will cost lives. We know already, given the Heston movies of the 60s, that man – or more specifically, we – will lose, and yet we root all the same for Caesar and his complicated role as the ape leader. That we end up taking in and spending money on a movie (and franchise) that will inevitably end up featuring more CGI and less humanity – to its benefit, mind you – feels strangely appropriate. That the film can so obviously lean towards another sequel, but be thought-provoking enough to stir a desire in us to actually see one is nothing short of miraculous given how tired the franchise first seemed.
There was a time, just after the release of The Phantom Menace and before the dead eyes of all those Robert Zemeckis films, when digitized actors seemed like the thing that was going to happen. It was the future of film making; actors were just going to have to get used to it. In a way, it makes me feel bad for Tim Roth. Back in 2001, Roth was cast as the lead villain in Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes (the de facto sixth film). The movie made money (people forget this), but was largely seen as a critical flop. This was back before motion capture technology had truly taken off, before Serkis became its messiah (the Lord of the Rings trilogy started in the winter of that year), before Tim Burton officially slide from visionary to “visionary.” Roth’s work as General Thade, under pounds of latex and hair, still marvellously holds up. In a way, he’s become the forgotten man in the twisted Planet of the Apes mythos, the missing link so to speak. Now we look at Caesar and Koba and Maurice in this latest instalment of the series, we look forward to its next evolution, and we’re reminded just how far we’ve come.