Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
July 23, 2014 by Zack
I was not a big fan of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”; however, I was not averse to the series being rebooted. I was hoping for something a little more brazen and daring, maybe. Like the original Rod Serling-penned film was. I know that Hollywood isn’t what it used to be and it’s harder for mainstream films to have a “message” that isn’t politically correct or sometimes downright cloying; but the “Apes” series was about change, and progression. It was a social commentary about race relations and bigotry–something that still and always will permeate society. “Rise” seemed to fall short on that, and the storyline just felt predictable and easy. That said, I did appreciate Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar. He seems to be right at home as a CGI enhanced character.
Here he returns as Caesar, but things have changed dramatically for planet earth. The virus hinted at in “Rise” has now wiped out a good portion of the human population, and apes are unaffected. They are, however, pretty smart and have evolved (oops, careful) into a healthy society. Caesar is their leader, with his old friend and wingman, Koba (Toby Kebbell) at his side. He also has a son named Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and a newborn with his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), who is suffering from an illness after the second son is born. The apes seem to be living happy as a tribe, until they are met with a group of humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke). Koba hates all humans, but Caesar isn’t so quick to dismiss them all. He knows there is good in them, he just has a hard time trusting them. When it’s discovered that the humans need to access a dam to give power to their dwellings outside the forest, Caesar has to make a choice to trust them. The dam happens to be in their jurisdiction. The humans are desperate, with only enough fuel at their compound to last another week. The leader, Drefyus (Gary Oldman), doesn’t really have an opinion on the apes, he just considers them animals. But Malcolm has seen their intelligence and isn’t intimidated as much as he is fascinated. He and Caesar strike a bond, with Caesar most likely remembering his younger years as a subject with Will (James Franco, making a cameo appearance in an old video that Caesar stumbles upon when he is in his old abandoned home). Caesar lets the humans do their “human work”–then, Koba reminds him, in a well done scene, that he, too, has had “human work”. He points to his scars, and simply says, “Human work”. The apes can talk, but primitively. They can complete sentences, but they cannot yet talk as well as, say, Dr. Zaius.
The strongest performances come from Serkis and Clarke as Caesar and Malcolm. Director Matt Reeves is wise to allow the film to breathe once in a while and give some time to flesh out the characters. Malcolm has a son, but lost his wife to the virus. His love interest, played well by Keri Russel, lost a child as well, and tries to form a bond with Malcolm’s son, named Alexander. Alexander begins a bit of a friendship with the Orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval). But it’s Caesar’s friendship with Malcolm that pushes this story along–although I will also mention that the story of Caesar and his son Blue Eyes is strong as well. Caesar finds that he can trust Malcolm, but not everyone. A member of his crew, Carver, hates the apes and plays one of the unfortunately strawman villains that is simply in there to stir things up. Koba, who is a stronger villain, somewhat dwindles into a stereotypical antagonist by the end as well but he does have some strong earlier scenes. I think the best scene with Koba involves him infiltrating the humans’ military compound where two moronic guys are testing guns. He acts like a dumb circus ape (a bonobo to be exact), and gets the guys to lower their defenses when he suddenly grabs their gun and “accidentally” kills one. The other one, terrified and astounded at the same time, suffers the same fate except Koba shows that he knows exactly what he’s doing this time.
The climactic battle between humans and apes is an exciting one, and impressive for it being almost entirely CG. Nothing looks phony or out of whack (although I wouldn’t recommend wasting the extra money to see it in 3-D, it does absolutely nothing). In the end, both Caesar and Malcolm know that no matter how much they want peace, it’s always the violence that wins out. Finally, we get a bit of that old “Apes” film feel when we know we’re just all doomed. The end certainly sets up another sequel, and I won’t give away how it all unfolds. But it is very strong, and very convincing, something that I just felt was lacking in “Rise”. This is a very well done sequel, and should be considered among the “better than the original” sequels like “The Godfather II”, “Empire Strikes Back”, and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”. It moves at a good pace for a film that’s over two hours, and the performances are all very well done.
If there was a necessary injection to give life into the franchise, this one delivers and is just what it needed, even after a soft origin film.