Sequels are tricky business, and they can be nasty business. Reboots are even more so, because taking an established franchise with a distinct tone and a loyal following tends to be a high risk and (potentially) high reward situation. When I originally heard that the Planet of the Apes movies were due for their very own revamped update, my concerns leaned heavily toward the “high risk” part; Tim Burton’s disastrous 2001 foray into the subject matter is understandably enough to make anyone wary. Planet of the Apes’ original 1968 incarnation was a glorious B-movie that has deservedly risen to cult status, but it presents a lot of challenges when it comes to adapting it for modern cinema. Tongue-in-cheek cheesy and dead serious would be the possible extreme interpretations, and 2011’sRise of the Planet of the Apes made it clear that the latter was the preferred vision, as well as the correct choice. The cultural climate regarding animal experimentation and world-rocking epidemics, as well as the technology needed to make them look perfect, are both primed for this kind of reboot, and the second installation in the series is a thoroughly thoughtful and entertaining summer blockbuster.
The world could end in fire, or it could end in ice, or it could end in a simian plague. For the purposes of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a virus that makes apes super intelligent and humans super dead is the initial blow to mankind, and the first step of many to make the apes’ uprising and eventual domination of Earth a little more plausible. After all, humans number around 7 billion, and great apes are considered critically endangered, so right off the bat there’s a bit of a problem. The latest reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise seeks to retain the spirit of the classic-but-dated schlockfest that was the original film while updating a well known story to be compelling and relevant to a modern audience. Though this is a herculean undertaking, the results are resoundingly successful, combining impressive special effects with writing that is ambitious without being arrogant or reaching too far. The apes in these films say a lot with very few words, and the same can be said for the screenplay; the wisdom in this approach is anything but primitive.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes left us with the outbreak of the virus imminent and a small but significant band of altered and intelligent apes disappearing into the woods of the American northwest. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up precisely where the prequel left off, with an opening montage showing the rapid death and decline of the human race due to the lab-created simian plague. Led by the charismatic chimpanzee Caeser (Andy Serkis), the apes are faring much better than their upright cousins, hunting with spears and using American Sign Language to communicate (and occasionally forcing vocalizations in English that began in Rise). Their community is simultaneously primitive and harmoniously enlightened, with Caeser ruling his loyal followers firmly but benevolently. Family and home are everything to the apes, and it’s assumed that the last humans are gone for good. When a small band of men appear and stir up unrest in the apes’ territory, though, the film’s plot becomes an intricate balancing act, with leaders on both sides challenged to keep the peace… or tempted to ensure victory for their race by striking first.
The scope of the story is wider and deeper; the revolutionary tone of the last film has subsided to make way for father-son dynamics, romance, and attempts at compromise in the face of prejudice and peril. There are impressive tricks at work to make the narrative both complex and fascinating; the film only starts to feel its meaty length of 130 minutes in the home stretch, and every one of those minutes is blockbuster magic. The motion capture the various apes rely on to come to life is seamless, and great thought was put into portraying their everyday lives, their usage of Sign Language, and the blossoming of their organized culture. The themes are symmetrical and balanced and not a single character is wasted or seems to have misplaced motivations; Caeser and his human equivalent, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) are both fathers and would-be peacekeepers. Their sons are both youths facing an uncertain future with worldviews that have yet to solidify. The ape Koba and the human Dreyfus have both been scarred, literally and figuratively, by the other species at some point in the past, and have difficulty seeing past their prejudices. "Human work!" Koba snarls repeatedly, pointing to lab inflicted wounds when Caeser implores him to be tolerant of the neighboring colony's intentions. Dreyfus, in a stirring speech, fortifies the resolve of his panicking human colony by reminding them of their struggles following the plague's aftermath: "We've been through Hell together! ...it's about giving us the hope to rebuild, to reclaim the world we lost!" If this film's plot was merely an ape vs. human conflict, it would be adequate, but derivative and predictable. However, there are ample twists to ensure the take-home message is that humans and apes are not so very different from one another, especially when it comes to the darker, nastier selfishness that seems to come with high intelligence. A gun in the hands of the wrong chimp is just as destructive as a gun in the hands of the wrong human, and it is refreshing to see a film where Man is not necessarily the enemy by default.
Performances all across the board are excellent; in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, only Serkis’ frighteningly intense performance as the genius chimp Caeser really left a significant impression, which didn’t hurt the film terribly, considering that the project as a whole seemed to serve as a frame whose purpose was to outline a master at work. Andy Serkis by himself isn’t particularly easy on the eyes, but put him in a motion capture body suit and cast him as a non-human, and he is consistently infallible. His raspy, rough voice work convincingly conveys the straining vocal chords of a creature that was born an ape affecting human speech, and his movements translate well to the simian persuasion. It’s not nearly as easy for him to waltz off and steal the show in Dawn, however, and this is a good thing; as the plot thickens and tension escalates, Caeser and Serkis both need rivals to match their charisma and their skill. Toby Kebbell is chilling as Koba, a hideously disfigured ape who is loyal to Caeser but irreparably distrustful of humans due to his mistreatment at their hands. Jason Clarke is solid as the diplomatic Malcolm, and despite it being a relatively bit part, Gary Oldman is apparently gunning for an Oscar as the pragmatic but fearful Dreyfus. His screen time is limited, but he’s given a scene with an iPad that he acts the hell out of. Why? Because he’s Gary Oldman, that’s why, and when he’s not in a leading role, he concentrates all of his boundless emotion and talent into the screen time he is given.
Cinematography and effects are gorgeous; if I see this film again while it is still in theaters, I will almost certainly spend the extra money to see it in 3-D, a rarity for a person who generally considers the medium a superfluous gimmick. But the movie is truly that beautiful to look at; though this film has its share of explosions, the most impressive effect is the apes’ eyes, which manage to claw their way out of the uncanny valley into something acceptable to the critical human sense of empathy. It's subtle and seemingly small, but the impact is huge, and should be when you consider how much nonverbal communication is essential to the apes' storyline. Subtitles are everywhere, but equally important are those flashes of anger and shifting, soft glances, and they are lovingly rendered. There is also some extremely cool camera work, the most stunning example being a panoramic shot from the top of a tank. You’ll know it when you see it; it took my breath away.
The film is rated PG-13 for good reason. There's violence and some very scary sequences; Koba, specifically, is extremely menacing. I'm not an expert on child-rearing by any means, but judging by the screaming infant in this critic's theater, it's probably not a good movie for babies or small children. Otherwise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a definite crowd-pleaser. Whether one has been a fan of the Planet of the Apes franchise for decades or is just being introduced to it now through the reboot, you'd be hard-pressed to ask for a better adaptation or a more thrilling summer blockbuster.