These damn apes outsmarted me again! When Rise of the Planet of the Apes burst onto the scene three summers ago, I had grave misgivings. The concept was always inherently silly, and it was hard to imagine any kind of re-imagining of the cult/camp classics from the 1960’s and 1970’s making any kind of sense. But, lo and behold, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a finely crafted piece of entertainment with amazing effects, an emotionally involving story, a stupendous lead performance from Andy Serkis as super ape Caesar, and confident direction from maestro Rupert Wyatt. When the film’s surprise success guaranteed sequels, I was crushed to learn Wyatt would not be returning in the director’s chair. In whose hands could a sequel make any kind of sense? This thing would be a debacle or at the very least have a bad case of sequel-itis, right?
Well, here I am, dear readers, admitting I was wrong…again. Apparently Matt Reeves (who for far too long, lived under the thumb of the overrated Hollywood demigod J.J. Abrams) can direct the heck out of an Apes flick. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes capitalizes with expert precision on the goodwill from the first film, once again putting Serkis as Caesar and the other apes front and center, ups the emotional ante, ups the action, and mines the very best elements from uber-popular TV shows to be massively appealing to a broad audience without ever seeming to kowtow to the masses.
Ten years following the events of the first film, the human race has been nearly wiped out by the simian flu, and Caesar and pals have set up a peaceful little society in the redwood forests outside of San Francisco. But behold, there are some humans still struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic community downtown, and they come up into Caesar’s territory to get a dam running again that will bring power back to the city. The film opens from the apes’ point of view, and for nearly twenty minutes they are the only characters on-screen. It’s a big gamble to start the film this way, but the amazing effects make the apes seem more human and relatable than ever, with Serkis and Toby Kebbell as Koba giving Oscar-worthy performances. The humans contain a sympathetic makeshift family (made up of Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Reeves’ very own Felicity alum and muse Keri Russell) and a questionable leader played by Gary Oldman. Quickly we learn the apes, like the humans, are divided into two factions: those hoping for peaceful coexistence, and those who are far too trigger-happy and untrustworthy.
While the special effects team continues to evolve their human driven motion-captured CGI technology to give us stunningly realistic depictions of the apes, the screenwriters do a great job showing the shades of humanity in all characters both human and ape. They also successfully play on our expectations. One goes in thinking Oldman is playing the ultimate anti-ape villain, but he’s a man crushed by what he lost in the pandemic and only wanting to protect the people under his care. Meanwhile, the character arc of Koba (the poor tortured ape Caesar rescued from the cruel scientists in the first film and played so fantastically here by Kebbell, who took over from Christopher Gordon) is one of near Shakespearian tragedy. The writers and Reeves deliver the goods in scene after scene, with the drama of the humans’ survival harkening to AMC’s The Walking Dead, while the political wrangling of the apes would be right at home in some distant kingdom on HBO’s Game of Thrones. It’s refreshing to see a film so compact and self-contained in its pacing and events – it’s as if a whole season of a great serial unrolls during its two hours without any of the drawn-out nonsense and with zero loss of emotional wallop. All throughout, Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino whips ups his most epic score yet, perfectly balancing the emotion with the suspense and bombast.
War, it seems, is inevitable, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes works just as well as a cautionary tale about escalating violence as it does as a piece of populist summer spectacle.
I don’t know what further films in the series will hold (it will all eventually get silly…right?) but here’s hoping these crafty filmmakers continue to prove me wrong.
Written by David H. Schleicher