Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
In a summer movie season jam packed with superhero movies, franchise reboots, sequels, prequels and Michael Bay’s ongoing attempt to kill as many moviegoers as possible with incoherent mayhem we’re sort of stuck at a crossroads as film fans. Hollywood will reboot just about anything they see fit nowadays (like launching a second Spider-Man franchise a mere 5 years after the previous one ended) without so much as asking themselves “Is it truly, honestly worth it?”. When Rise of the Planet of the Apes was released in 2011 I felt a similar sort of predetermined standoffish nature towards the idea. I wasn’t a Planet of the Apes fan in the slightest and to be honest I never caught a single entry aside from the original and Tim Burton’s gloriously failed attempt at a reboot, but this was just Hollywood recycling something with a familiar name again – right?
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was like a crash course in “Franchise Reboots 101”. It gave its audience something familiar (even tossing in winks and nods like the famous “damn dirty ape” line) but still went deeper into the heart of what made these movies tick. The social commentary and continued outing of our country’s very serious animal-testing problem was a driving force behind the story’s narrative, even becoming major influences in a lot of the characters on screen. It brought real human drama to a cast of non-human characters and because of that it continued the demand for groundbreaking advances in CGI. It hit the mark in just about every way and managed to be a sort of “under the radar” sleeper hit of the 2011 movie season. So how did the sequel manage to match up with its predecessor in those same departments?
Quite well actually.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set 10 years after the events of Rise – and can actually be viewed here in a series of 3 short films entitled “Before the Dawn” that act as a prequel – and picks up with humanity on its last leg. Most of the population has been wiped out by the Simian flu virus we saw come to life in the previous movie and the rest of the survivors are scattered. On the other hand the apes have gone further into the woods to further advance as a species while their human counterparts flounder to avoid extinction. Led by Caesar they’ve not only built a home and a society but a community where they challenge themselves to learn and grow every day. There’s nurseries, hunting trips and a societal ladder where certain Apes even teach their young ones to read, write and study the human alphabet. The two biggest advancements in the growth of these apes are their intelligence and their means for communication. They now all speak in sign language and have grown to not just grasp the smallest of tasks but function on the same intellectual and philosophical level as human-beings. They’re unaware of the presence of humans as it’s been a good 2 years since they last caught a glimpse of them, but that all changes when a group of stragglers head into the forest and a deadly outcome sparks an uneasy mistrust between both species. The conflict at hand centers around an abandoned dam that the humans set out to use for power as their gasoline and batteries are within days of running out – yet that dam is in the heart of the apes’ new home. Working there would ensure the survival of the human race but it’s a race that hasn’t been too kind to these apes in the past and those fears are what sets both sides on a crash course that will inevitably end in bloodshed.
Survival. It’s the core theme to this movie and the very reasoning behind every single one of our character’s decisions, both human and ape. There is no good side or bad side, no hero or villain and no “preferred” species in this ultimate battle – just two different groups in dire situations doing what they see as their best chance to survive. Neither set out to destroy the other and at their heart neither want that outcome, but can we truly live in peace? There are of course the “bad” people in both camps but their evil was founded on years upon years of horrible pain and mistrust, and those influences are more prevalent than any incarnation of weaponry. That power of fear is something that’s used quite often in the movie as a means to get others to follow into a questionable moral choice that they otherwise would’ve decided against. It’s these rich social themes that drive the story forward and help give even the most “evil” of characters a side of understanding that’s far deeper than your quintessential summer villain. You find yourself at the heart of this conflict while rationalizing both sides in your mind and attempting to come up with a solution. Yet just as our human and ape leaders come to realize it seems that the roots of mistrust, pain and anger run far too deep and their dark road into hell is the only option left.
I’ve mentioned that these storytelling elements and characters are so richly written but they’re also so brilliantly portrayed, and it’s Andy Serkis who once again leads the way. Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman give more than solid performances as both of them infiltrate their own personal struggles into characters to create depth but this is really Andy’s movie. It’s rare that you see one man so insurmountably important to a film process but he’s done exactly that in the past 13 years. He’s a trailblazing force of talent that’s not only changed the motion capture element of acting but he’s completely changed the way movies are made and filmed. He’s so much more than a CGI character and just that very thought is painstakingly insulting to the years upon years of hard work he’s put into his craft. He’s one of Hollywood’s great actors yet is often ignored and rarely seen or heard of alongside the big names we’ve come to associate with. Thankfully he’s far from unseen or unheard in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as he puts on, in my opinion, his best performance as an actor with his conflicted and thorough portrayal of Caesar. I don’t know how else I can put this so I’ll pretty much come out and say it: I believed that Caesar was real. That’s a testament to the CGI, sure, but without Andy Serkis’s performance the entire project would’ve fell flat and collapsed under the pressure of a hollow species. He evoked fear out of not just his thundering screams but his icy stares that countered his loving moments. It’s a balanced acting performance that truly showcases a stoic yet vulnerable leader who sees all sides of his situation and desperately wants to avoid war at all costs. Every single motion is calculated to be a LIVING, BREATHING APE THAT’S WALKING UPRIGHT ALONGSIDE A HUMAN. I’ve said it with his performance as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings as well as his portrayal of King Kong and Caesar in Rise, but it’s the fact that moments into the movie you forget that you’re watching an actor behind a wall of computer graphics and you start believing that this creature is right there in front of you – and that’s the best compliment I can give.
So yes, I highly recommend Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as it’s not just a blockbuster of modern spectacle but a deeply rich tribute to the original franchise and what it means to so many people. There are elements at play here that are more than familiar, they’re universal ,and they’ve been at the forefront of our existence since we first learned to walk upright – something that the Apes in this movie have only just begun to accomplish.