“Apes together strong!”
When French author Pierre Boulle first wrote his novel Monkey Planet, I’m sure he never imagined a film like Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. While I was enjoying the five films that made up the original franchise run, I couldn’t have imagined a movie like Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. When Tim Burton made his pitiful attempt to revive the franchise, it was downright impossible. In fact, the franchise appeared dead and gone by the time that film ran its destructive course. When I first heard of plans to resurrect the franchise with Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, I was quite skeptical and prepared to see my love of those first films once again exploited and tainted. But in 2011, we were all in for a rather pleasant surprise. The film proved to be a hit, and with good reason. It was a wonderful film that paid proper homage to the source material, all the while telling it’s own unique tale, using cutting-edge technology in computer-generated images. The star turned out to be Andy Serkis, whom we never actually saw on the screen. Instead the pioneer in motion-capture performance captivated us by bringing real emotion and nuanced performance to what was essentially just a series of 1’s and 0’s. It was remarkable. It couldn’t have gotten better.
Ah, but it has. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a quantum leap forward in motion-capture technology. With the first film we had Serkis as Caesar and a few other apes who didn’t dominate with screen time. The human actors were the central support around Serkis’s performance. This time the screen is populated by literally hundreds of these characters. And they are more amazing than they were just three short years ago.
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was not a remake/reimagining of Planet Of The Apes but rather the fourth film in the original series, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes. It told the story of how the apes became intelligent and planted the seeds of mankind’s ultimate departure from dominance on planet Earth.
Dawn picks up with an extension of that credits scene where we saw graphics of the spread of the simian virus across the globe. Those graphics are repeated here with flashes of news footage that pretty much chronicles the end of civilization, at least as we know it today.
Jump 10 years into the future, and the apes have built a city in the wilderness of northern California. Caesar (Serkis) has become the revered leader of this ape community. He has a mate, and a son, Blue Eyes (Thurston). A new child has just arrived, and we’re treated to a lingering view of the settlement. It has been two years since the apes have seen any signs of humans, and they have developed a peaceful and utopian society complete with wooden structures for homes and a classroom where apes learn, among other things, that ape shall not kill ape. If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it is. This film is essentially a retelling of Battle For The Planet Of The Apes within the framework of this new series of films.
The serenity is disturbed when a small band of humans led by Malcolm (Clarke) stumble into the apes’ territory. Both sides are startled, and a skirmish results in Blue Eyes being horribly scarred. Caesar warns the humans to leave and has them followed so that he can warn the human settlement not to return. He, of course, does this with a huge show of force. Apes do not want war, but his warning is that they will fight if they have to. Both sides, now aware of each other, begin the slow descent towards the war it seems neither side really wanted.
Here’s where the film explores “humanity” in both cultures. It’s quite poignant the way the film exhibits the various reactions of fear, anger and misunderstanding that usually lead to conflict. It’s the best example of the evolution toward war that I think I’ve ever seen on film. Both sides have their agitators. For the apes we have Koba (Kebbell), whose hatred of humans was born from the tortures he endured in captivity. His body is crowded with the physical scars of the treatment, but it’s the psychological damage that leads him to instigate a war by violating the apes’ most central tenets. For the humans there is Dreyfus (Oldman), who is the leader of the human community, and Carver (Acevedo), who can’t seem to get a handle on his own fear and revulsion of the apes. It’s all pushed over the line when the humans attempt to use an old dam to provide power to their city running low on the fuel that has “kept the lights on”.
It’s one of those conflicts where you want to root for both sides. Like most societies, they both have their good and bad. You watch, and you hope against hope that they will find a way to live in peace. That might have been a nice thing to feel, but it would not have been realistic. The apes are a growing new force on the planet, and the humans are the species on the verge of extinction. Both have something precious to fight for, and conflict is inevitable. The climax is something we’re both eager to see (from the film fan perspective) but actually hope never comes (from the humanity perspective). That’s one heck of a tough thing to pull off.
The biggest complaint I have with the film is its timing. I feel like there was a movie to be seen in that intervening 10 years. I very much wanted to see these characters develop amid the environments that would shape who they are. The movie does a pretty good job of offering much of that character development with many of the ape characters. Koba is particularly well-developed here. It’s not lost on the historian in me that he shares a moniker with Stalin, who was often referred to as Koba. He’s essentially Aldo from the previous film, but is far more fleshed out here. Strange when you consider that Aldo was played by a human actor, Claude Akins, while Koba is a computer-generated character served (quite well) by the motion capture performance of Toby Kebbell. The human characters weren’t so well developed, and I think the film suffers a tad because of it. It was pointed out to me that they weren’t the focus, but that’s not really true. Yes, it’s the apes who are rising here, but the humans are an integral part of the story. It’s like saying that the villain isn’t the focus of a James Bond or superhero film. Tell that to Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger or Gerte Frobe.
All the same, there’s an argument to be made that this is the best film of the entire franchise. It’s a valid point, but I don’t think it’s exactly fair to compare these films to the originals. They represent entirely different worlds and really two different kinds of films. There’s a camp element to those earlier movies that wouldn’t be appropriate here and now. They were lighter films that appealed very much to kids. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a serious film that weighs far heavier on its audience. This is deep stuff going on here.
The audience is represented best by Caesar’s son Blue Eyes. The character is one of the most expressive without saying very much. In fact, there isn’t much actual dialog in the film. For some reason not really fully explored in the movie, the apes communicate mostly through sign language even though they can clearly speak. It’s one of those aspects that that missing middle film I was talking about would have been helpful in explaining. It’s a rather nice touch that leads to some very tender moments in the film. I just would have liked some development of the practice. Blue Eyes is absolutely our stand-in. He loves his father but is swayed by Koba’s arguments to the point of near betrayal. Like us, he’s an observer trying to figure out the world around him. It’s his redemption that gives us hope for these apes as an up-and-coming civilization. It’s all told through those eyes. It’s an amazing accomplishment of computer imagery and motion-capture performance. We almost see these events through those bright eyes.
Director Matt Reeves has made a very special movie here. He brings not only life, but a living spirit to these computer images. This film likely has as many f/x shots as a Transformer film does. Here you quickly forget that you’re watching f/x shots. You are immersed in this world to the point that you will mourn its loss. These characters will touch your soul in ways you won’t believe possible until you’ve seen the movie. Yes, the f/x are amazing, but Reeves doesn’t use them to hide poor plot and story. He uses the technology to tell an engaging tale. They are tools and not the end result. I believe these films will have the lasting quality that the originals did for my generation. It’s a world I want to visit again and again. For this old Apes film fan, “It’s about giving us the hope.”