Directed by: Matt Reeves || Produced by: Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Screenplay by: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver || Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clark, Toby Kebbell, Nick Thurston, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Karin Konoval, Doc Shaw, Kirk Acevedo, Terry Notary
Music by: Michael Giacchino || Cinematography: Michael Seresin || Edited by: William Hoy, Stan Salfas || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 131 minutes
In 2011, when the re-reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise (original series — 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973), Rise of the Planet of the Apes, arrived, everybody was shocked at how refreshing, intelligent, and different it was. The original series hasn’t aged well enough for most fans to appreciate, and the first remake by Tim Burton in 2001, starring Mark Walhberg, was remarkably lame; most thought the series was dead in the water, and that any further attempt to revive the franchise would be yet another underwhelming marketing gimmick by major studios to capitalize on a pre-existing brand. O ye of little faith!
What separated Rise from the plethora of other remakes congesting Hollywood schedules during the 2000s and early 2010s, was how it was less a remake and more a modern “re-envisioning” of the original premise. This new reboot kept the original themes of human-simian conflict and sociobiology, while ditching the pre-established time-travel plot-device. Rise kept its science-fiction premise plausible and progressed its franchise storyline chronologically.
Dawn skips time between itself and Rise, starting roughly a decade after the escape of Caesar’s apes into the wild and the spread of “the Simian Flu.” Humanity has been decimated, contagion-style, leaving most of the remaining settlements separated and disorganized, struggling to find resources and maintain civil society. During this time there hasn’t been much contact with the sentient ape population that escaped to the California redwoods.
The only principle character in Dawn that played a major role in the last film is Serkis as the lead chimp, Caesar. Former minor characters Maurice the circus Orangutan (Karin Kanoval) and the bonobo Koba (Toby Kebbell) return in much larger roles, but all the human players are different. The only nod to Rise’s human cast is a brief but emotionally resonant sequence later in the film where Caesar watches a video clip of James Franco teaching him sign language when he was a baby.
Top to bottom, the strengths that made Rise a success are the same things that make Dawn a great movie as well. All the ape characterizations are strong, their backstories give them motivation, and their relationships form the meat of the story. None are more engrossing than Serkis as Caesar, like in Rise, whose leadership is tested as he struggles to prevent all out war between his ape clan and the local human colony. Koba’s antagonist expands upon his brief guest appearance in Rise, with his fear of humans from a lifetime as an abused test animal prompting him to seek violent actions against the human colonists. Koba and Caesar’s give-and-take relationship is the major highlight of the film, demonstrating an old-school tribal power struggle between two alpha males with vastly different philosophies on conflict resolution and outlooks on life. This tribal warfare theme extends to the larger conflict between the human and ape groups, which makes obvious but powerful allusions to humanity’s (and now the ape’s) sentient but still highly animalistic instincts; Dawn is as much about humanity’s animal inclinations toward fear, prejudice, and sectarian violence as it is about sentience and “higher” intelligence, particularly with regards to how thin the line is that separates them.
The diplomacy-vs-warfare dynamic that plays between Caesar and Koba is reflected in kind among the humans, between Jason Clarke’s peacekeeping Malcolm and Gary Oldman’s hotheaded, paranoid colony leader Dreyfus. Unsurprisingly, the main complaint with Rise is the same weakness of Dawn, namely that these human characters are not nearly as interesting as their ape counterparts. This is a minor problem, given how most of the narrative focus is dedicated to the apes, but more than a few scenes of dialogue between Kodi Smit-McPhee and Keri Russell (who play Clarke’s son and significant other, respectively) are distractedly clumsy; to that end, Oldman is given so little screentime it’s a wonder the studio gave such a small role to such a notable actor.
Still, it’s hard to complain when the simian cast is so good and has such great chemistry, the motion capture digital FX are shockingly well done, and the action scenes are so impressive. The motion-capture technology is a thing of beauty. All the ape characters look incredible, and their facial expressions and visible emotion (a combination of great acting and digital manipulation) make these apes feel more human than their actual Homo sapien counterparts.
Dawn ends on a huge cliffhanger that’ll leave you wanting to see the next installment right away. Despite the fact that the next Apes movie will likely feature lackluster human characters like the first two (why can’t we have both good human and ape characters in the same movie?), I’m as excited now as I was before seeing Dawn about where this reinvigorated franchise will go. Despite the rapid stagnation of the original series and Burton’s impotent reboot attempt over a decade ago, this new Apes franchise is scratching, clawing, and chest-beating its way to the upper echelons of recent successful franchise re-imaginings, along with the likes of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012). I guess it goes to show us that, despite the exhausting, repetitive congestion of Hollywood’s over-reliance on established franchises, there are occasional diamonds in the rough that arguably make the rest of the lackluster reboot schlock worth it. Hail Caesar!
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The apes are once again the stars of the show, and what stars they are: Serkis is a powerful lead man (chimp) as the complicated hero, Caesar, a character who must come to grips with his human upbringing, his enhanced sentience, his responsibilities toward his ape family and biology, and finally, the complexities of social prejudice and conflict in an ape-eat-ape world. His supporting clan of apes and especially his nemesis, Koba, further flesh out this dystopian adventure into a rocking good time. The motion-capture CGI is amazing and puts the goofy makeup FX of past installments to shame. In a day and age where mediocre, lazy digital FX have largely replaced creative cinematography and generally more realistic practical FX, this is one franchise that continues to showcase the potential of computer technology to enhance, rather than subdue, the magic of movies.
— However… as in this rebooted series’ first installment, the human characters pail in comparison to their simian opponents.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
? I am sorry, my friend. War has already begun…