Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa
Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the welcome follow up to Rupert Wyatt’s unexpectedly great Rise of the Planet of the Apes. At the end of Rise, the chimp who would be king Caesar leads an assortment of apes out of a primate shelter, through the National Guard protecting the Golden Gate Bridge and away to freedom. Meanwhile, the man-made ALZ-112 viral drug, created by neuroscientist James Franco (in the most improbable piece of casting since nuclear physicist Denise Richards) has spread across the globe with disastrous consequences, wiping out almost all of humanity.
Ten years have passed.
Caesar now rules over an ape society that numbers in the hundreds and is slowly beginning to resemble the civilization that Charlton Heston discovered in the original Planet of the Apes. They communicate to one another in sign language and have a set of Animal Farm style rules to maintain order. “Apes do not kill apes.” It’s wishful thinking and inviting an irony-laden betrayal on poor Caesar. I was pleased to see that Caesar’s buddies from the original film are back in Dawn. There’s Maurice the mellow orangutan, Rocket the former alpha male in the primate shelter and Koba, the craggly faced franken-chimp that was tortured and held in captivity at Franco’s lab Gen-Sys. Better keen an eye on ol’ Koba.
Caesar also has a wife Cornelia and son Blue Eyes (Heston’s nickname in the original). Blue Eyes is feisty and petulant, prone to naively taking advice from Uncle Koba, instead of trusting his old man. The whole thing reminded me a lot of Lion King. Cornelia is the only identifiably female ape in the film and I thought it was hilarious that they signified this by giving her a bow on her head like Ms Pacman.
I love the opening to Dawn which assumes the audience is familiar with the events of Rise and is happy to spend time immersing everybody with life amongst intelligent ape society. Its over ten minutes before the apes stumble upon some humans, the first they’ve seen since their breakout. The leader of the expedition Malcolm attempts to negotiate a peaceful retreat but is undermined by a trigger-happy colleague who shoots Rocket’s son. This sets the tone for the disaster course that mankind and apekind are headed for. Malcolm and Caesar are intelligent, peace-minded diplomats but both are undone by their respective societies who are fearful, mistrusting and quick to anger. No wonder there’s a handful of reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes claiming its an allegory for the Middle East or Vietnam.
I don’t know about that but at least I know this much. I loved Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and it stands alongside Edge of Tomorrow as exactly the type of well made, thought provoking sci-fi blockbuster that I want to see more of. This is a film that whole-heartedly invests in the concept of an intelligent ape society challenging the superiority of man. It’s a credit to the performance of virtual actor wunderkind Andy Serkis and his ape actor colleagues that they can engage the audience so strongly with this idea. One of the film’s most powerful images is an enraged Koba, riding on horseback, firing two automatic rifles at his enemies. Stripped of context it looks and sounds ridiculous. But in that moment in the cinema, you could hear a pin drop as the audience was completely engaged by what was unfolding.
It’s worth noting that the digital effects team at Weta Workshop have really outdone themselves with Dawn. They’re certainly become a name synonymous with Hollywood SFX ever since the Lord of the Rings trilogy but for every captivating image we had of Ring Wraiths and Sauron, there are also memories of those terrible looking CGI like the dinosaur battles in King Kong that have aged pretty poorly. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is Weta at their very best. The film obviously relies on a ton of effects to make the apes seem tangible, believable and most importantly, capable of making the audience feel. It stands to reason that most of the film’s emotional high points involve the apes and if there was even a hint of uncanny valley in the faces of the apes, it would be abll over. And yet, I think its almost universally accepted that this is a film in which Serkis and co. are more emotionally engaging than the humans. Which is some feat when you consider they have Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke on their side.
It’s easy to recognize Caesar as the star of the film and I still find myself cheering for him and willing him on to succeed. But the other apes in the cast are fantastic too. The laconic and loyal Maurice is a fantastic friend to Caesar and whenever the film endangers him, I always felt nervous because he seems like a believably expendable character. And of course Koba is a wonderful foil to Caesar. He hates humans and is something of a heel but he has a completely understandable motive for doing what he does. And we come to admire Koba for his smarts, if not his resourcefulness, when he pulls a shuck and jive routine to outsmart two humans who hold him to gunpoint. Clever Koba.
There is much to like about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes both as a stand alone film and as part of the Planet of the Apes canon. In the spirit of the original film, Dawn is buoyed by an idealistic and moralistic centre. The film has a strong and impassioned anti-gun, anti-war and anti-propaganda message. It is not a peaceful film but it is anchored by two lion-hearted leads in Caesar and Malcolm who are inspiring leaders for their respective people, faced with an impossible and maybe unavoidable conflict.
So its every bit as good as Rise. Maybe even a tad better. And with the fall out at the end of the film, you feel there is almost certainly room in the tank for another chapter. Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves have done an admirable job bringing the Planet of the Apes lore back to the forefront of mainstream cinema. I hope this film finds a wide audience so we can get the closing chapter that this series deserves.