Expectations were suitably low for 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Fox had already tried and failed to re-start the Planet of the Apes series a decade prior, and Rise came from an unproven director and opened with little hype. It surprised everyone by being miles better than expected, and stands as one of, if not the best example of a modern franchise reboot. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes finds itself in a very different situation then, with hopes raised infinitely for it to be a worthy successor, fortunately it easily lives up to them
Rise director Rupert Wyatt chose not to continue with the series after resurrecting it so effectively, and has handed the reigns over to Matt Reeves of the single watch gimmick monster movie Cloverfield, and the atmospheric if redundant vampire remake Let Me In. Reeves demonstrates a similar style to Wyatt, and really comes into his own as a filmmaker here, there’s nothing in his prior work that’s as strong as what he does with Dawn.
After a brief reminder of what happened at the end of Rise; the vast majority of humans being wiped out by the ‘simian flu’, the film’s proper opening is really quite the daring feat for a summer blockbuster. 10 years after the events of Rise, the apes led by Caesar have formed a full flung society of their own in the woods near what remains of San Francisco. How they live, hunt, and their family dynamics are effectively communicated in a relatively short space of time, and this all occurs without a word of dialogue (they speak in subtitled sign language), or much in the way of action or the appearance of a single human being. Like I said, it’s far from a conventional beginning, but a very good one nonetheless.
In fact there’s little-to-no action for the first half of the movie. When the humans do show up, it’s clear that the apes haven’t seen them in a very long time. A small party enters the woods, and a paranoid, trigger happy member shoots a juvenile ape out of confusion and fear. It’s the first sign of the real-world parallels present throughout Dawn, which are easy to see but never feel forced.
The film’s primary story involves the two factions; the immune human survivors in the ruined city and the apes in the woods having to deal with each other’s existence. In this sense Dawn is a lot like a morally complex war movie. “Apes do not want war”, Caesar exclaims, “but will fight if we must”. There aren’t clear heroes or villains to this conflict, there are members on both sides who just want to find a mutually beneficial situation, while there are others who see no way this can be realistically possible.
There are some fascinatingly thoughtful characterisations to the primary apes, Caesar is the noble family man having to lead his tribe through this difficult time. Opposite him, Koba (Toby Kebbell) distrusts all humans, but with understandable reasons, he bares many scars from being experimented upon. Caesar’s son Blue Eyes finds himself conflicted as to who is best to view as a role model. The dynamics between them are old story troupes dating back to Shakespeare or even Greek tragedy, but they’re given freshness when seen through the eyes of these apes.
On the other side, the humans are very much play second fiddle, but parallels can be made between them and the apes. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the leader of the initial search party, is a calm, measured individual but steps up his courage to try and negotiate with the apes. Back in the city, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), feels resentment toward the apes, blaming them for the flu that wiped out his family, and will stop at nothing to achieve his goals if the apes stand in his way.
We know that the extinction is on a global scale in the Apes universe, but the film never allows us to see the world outside of San Francisco. At first I couldn’t decide if I actually liked this decision or not, curious to see more, but upon further though came to appreciate it as the correct decision by the filmmakers. The isolation enables you to understand the characters more, both human and ape, though it’s the humans who are desperate to communicate with someone outside.
Though a great success, Rise of the Planet of the Apes wasn’t perfect, and Dawn corrects a few of its missteps. Rise lead James Franco doesn’t make for the world’s most convincing scientist and writer/producers Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silva recognise that there’s not really any reason for him or his girlfriend to return for the sequel. This isn’t the story of Dr. Will Rodman (and yes I had to look that up), it’s the story of Caesar. It also is similarly respectful to the tradition and legacy of the old Apes films without needing to shoehorn in unnecessary call-backs.
We all know by now just what Andy Serkis can achieve in performance capture, and his work as Caesar here is as good as he’s ever been, and deservedly receives top billing in the credits. He’s easily matched by Dead Man’s Shoes star Toby Kebbell as Koba however, who delivers what might be the best scene of the movie when he deceives a couple of human gunmen. Koba’s one of the year’s most interesting cinematic characters, and these apes never feel like shiny CGI creations, they have fully developed, recognizable and identifiable personalities. This is apparently the first film to try shooting performance capture on location which likely adds further to the credibility of the craft. The ape actors also provide all the vocalisations, which could have been a potential stumbling block. The leading apes have evolved a larger vocabulary, but nothing yet to rival the humans. They mostly sign to each other, saving spoken words for the most important moments or when dealing with humans. These simple words are never unintentionally funny, don’t make the apes sound dumb and aren’t purely there for the audience members put off by subtitles; when Koba points out his scars as “human work” it’s among the most memorable dialogue of the movie.
Perhaps appropriately so, the human characters are all weaker. Jason Clarke is solid if unspectacular as the sympathetic Malcolm, making less of the tough guy I had imagined when Clarke’s casting was announced. He has a family situation of his own to deal with, that’s touched on with smart brevity and never the focus. Unfortunately, there’s not much to Gary Oldman’s character. We only really get one moment of background from him and he’s not even in the film much. While his work here is fine it’s a little surprising that an actor as good as Oldman is cast in such roles.
Dawn isn’t a complete slam-dunk though, I can imagine this film being cited in a few feminist film articles in the next few years as an example of another otherwise excellent Hollywood movie that totally side-lines female characters. The only real female presence at all is Keri Russell as Malcolm’s wife. While she does actually play a part in the story, she’s mostly notable just by being the only woman in the search party. This extends to the apes too; Judy Greer apparently played Caesar’s wife but is barely there at all. Maurice the Orangutan was actually played by a female actor (Karin Konoval) but you wouldn’t know it.
All the work Dawn’s put into its plot and character development doesn’t mean it holds off when the action scenes come though. Reeves stages the battles on an epic scale, employing imagery from war films and westerns, combined with the sheen of state-of-the-art modern technology; they’re a thrill to behold. His camera work here is similarly impressive, at one point giving us an incredible long shot from a tank, that you’d never know this was the same guy that previously gave us the shaky, ‘can’t see-anything-properly’ camcorder shots in Cloverfield. All often accompanied by a wonderfully 70s-inflected score from Michael Giacchino.
It seems quite appropriate that we’ve had Dawn of the Planet of the Apes come out right after Transformers 4 as it’s in many ways very similar yet in others the complete opposite of it. It’s almost like Hollywood atoning for Transformers, and showing just what big sci-fi/action franchise movies can be if they try. It’s a blockbuster with real ambitions, exploring deep complex themes of humanity, coupled with fantastic special effects and action scenes. It’s quite something that an old sci-fi series few people had much interest in 5 years ago has become one of the most exciting studio properties around.