In 2011 20th Century Fox managed a feat few thought possible: they rebooted the Planet of the Apes Franchise with a prequel that stood on its own avoiding typical prequel pitfalls. Directed by Rupert Wyatt Rise of the Planet of the Apes allowed for a whole new generation to be drawn into a now eight movie franchise which has had its origins in the book La Planète des Singes (1963) by Pierre Boule.
3 years later a new director – Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) – is giving us a sequel focusing on the chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his group of hyper-intelligent apes who are trying to build themselves a homestead 10 years after a deadly virus has wiped out most of humanity. But when a group of humans stumbles into Caesar’s territory the conflict is imminent.
And while the trailers make the movie out to be a spectacle driven CGI fest this sequel never forgets its roots and never settles for the easy answers. While there are some flaws in the narratives the overall product Reeves has delivered stands strong as a great continuation of Caesar’s story and will leave many people clamoring for the next installment without feeling that anything has been held back for a sequel.
The world of Apes and motion capture
Rise of the Planet of the Apes cleverly used motion capture techniques developed in The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Pirates of the Caribbean and Avatar to bring a character to life and make people care for a digital creature. A marriage between special effects and storytelling which made us feel with the chimpanzee even though the protagonist was not using any (or almost no) words. It is a shame that neither Serkis nor the visual effects were honored during the Oscars that year. Instead the award went to a silent movie which was praised for its nonverbal storytelling even though the protagonist was nowhere near as complex or interesting as Caesar (am I sounding too bitter?).
But at least the people behind the franchise understood this strength and so the first 10-15 minutes are spent completely with the ape-protagonists. It is a great twist on the story conventions of post apocalyptic movies. Usually the “monsters” are the myth and the humans encounter them. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes it is the other way round since no ape has seen a human being in years.
It is one of the best decisions by director Matt Reeves and completely changes the way we view this movie. It is like watching Avatar with the Na’Vi being the invasion force. This also avoids the usual “innocent natives, evil human” stereotypes since there are multiple standpoints on both sides and we get to know them all.
Where Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an intimate piece about Caesar’s transformation – much like a slave-revolution story – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a full blown political drama… with Apes.
Evolved apes, basic humans
The focus on the apes leads to the problem that the humans are much less interesting and some of their stories are textbook examples of storytelling. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is the peaceful negotiator who has wife (Keri Russel) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) both of which are underused. Still while their character is limited they are not pointless but have small tasks to do as the movie progresses.
Speaking of small tasks: Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is another character who is not developed much beyond his initial intruduction. But here it was a refreshing twist on a cliché I dreaded: Dreyfus only wants to save his people and you can actually believe him. He is not a trigger happy Avatar-marine who can’t wait to kill apes because he is evil.
Still all those shortcomings are compensated by the focus on Caesar and his apes. But praise does not solely belong to Serkis. Especially Toby Kebbell adds much needed layers of complexity to the ape Koba – who we have already written off as “evil ape” in terms of visual representation.
The strength of the movie is that Koba has an understandable motivation due to his experience with humans. And it is especially interesting since at the start of the movie – contrary to the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Koba is less of an antagonist of Caesar and much more of a counsellor.
When it comes to Koba and Caesar one starts to feel an underlying theme of perceived reality. Since there never is a split into good an evil the entire story is driven by motivations and what actions define the characters. And like any relatable conflict there are little to no moments when the story deliberately contrives a misunderstanding to get the action scenes going. There are many misunderstandings and falsely perceived events but none of those could be changed by having the characters discuss it over a cup of coffee – like in so many other movies (cough Transcendence cough).
There is no clean war
Unlike so many other blockbusters Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – in true Planet of the Apes fashion – trades bombastic action sequences for intimate character moments and conversations. Instead of contriving a reason to go to war it is a gradual tension which looms over everything. This tension adds plausibility when everything goes from bad to worse in a few seconds. And when it gets worse it is not an enjoyable sight.
Where the trailers showcase the action in grandiose spectacle fashion the movie itself feels devoid of any joy for spectacle. When the war begins we are in the trenches with frightened apes and humans facing the flaming terror of war. There is no heroism, no glory, just the madness of the battlefield.
The flawed hero
The biggest strength of this movie is the fact that it never tries to present morally perfect characters. Where other movies prefer to pin the violence onto “evil characters” and have the good characters stand by to retain the moral high ground this movie is not afraid to delve into this territory. This is the best thing that could have happened to the franchise.
In many ways Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a reinterpretation of Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) but contrary to the old movie this new version doesn’t treat the protagonists as holy characters who can’t do wrong. Caesar even admits to many of his errors as the movie goes on, making him grow more and more complex compared to the 1973 template.
When the movie finally comes to an ending in true spirit of the Planet of the Apes series I had a feeling similar to the one I had after Rise of the Planet of the Apes:
A part of me wants to see what comes next but the other part is afraid that they might undo the fascinating conflict of this very ending. But after this sequel I am confident that they can do it a third time!
Film: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a great entry in this rebooted series. It is a movie which builds upon the foundation of an excellent first part. It knows its strengths and all the issues are compensated by the ape-performances and the moral greyness of this world.
Similarly to Christopher Nolan’s Batman-approach this film does not save anything for a sequel. 20th century Fox has delivered a complete movie which doesn’t need a sequel… but I’d be damned if I didn’t want one.