Silver Screen: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ****1/2
What distinguished 2011’s surprisingly good reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the motion-capture technology and digital effects that allowed the filmmakers to translate Andy Serkis’s physical performance as super-intelligent ape Caesar. The transition from the original’s humanoid beings with ape faces to something more recognizably simian had a twofold effect. It highlighted the distinctive animal nature of the creatures, yet in doing so also made the flashes of higher awareness all the more startling and humane. Much of the pleasure of watching the movie was marveling at such a strange hybrid creature so plausibly brought to life.
In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the Godfather Part II of Apes movies— or The Dark Knight of Apes movies, if you prefer— that effect is expanded exponentially. Caesar, having dosed a group of primates with the experimental Alzheimer’s cure that enhanced his mental capacity, fled into the woods outside San Francisco with his new family. Now he’s the leader of a clan with an established society, living in a beautiful complex of treehouses. It’s a brilliantly designed set that evokes the elaborate treetop camps of Avatar, only colored in darker earth tones rather than vibrant pinks and purples.
The ape society is thoroughly imagined, richly detailed, and immediately compelling, as evidenced in the long, mostly dialogue-free opening scene in which Caesar (Serkis again) leads his son and other members of the tribe on a hunt. It’s such fascinating stuff that it’s kind of a bummer when humans inevitably come into the picture.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the story of two cities. Back in San Francisco, a tiny group of human survivors have reestablished some order in the decade following the deadly outbreak of the Simian Flu, which claimed the lives of 499 out of every five-hundred people it infected. The leader of the human camp, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), is worried that the inevitable loss of fuel for the generators will return the settlement to anarchy, so he enlists his right-hand man Malcom (Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke) to lead an expedition to a hydroelectric power plant nearby. That venture leads to a disastrous encounter between humans and apes, which causes controversy in both camps.
The apes haven’t seen any trace of humans “in two winters,” and many among their number, especially the angry Koba, who was brutalized in a research facility, want to destroy the nascent human society before it grows too powerful. A similar sentiment echoes from Dreyfus’s people, who are understandably alarmed to learn the apes that they blame for the pandemic have taken to speaking English and riding in formation on horseback. The level-headed Malcom and Caesar try to find peace while the more skeptical members of their respective groups plot war.
Occasionally the parallels between Malcom and Caesar get a little heavy-handed. Nearly ever major character in one society has a corresponding member in the other: Caesar and Malcom, Dreyfus and Koba, Caesar’s son and Malcom’s son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Caeser’s pregnant wife and Malcom’s post-plague lady (Keri Russell), et cetera. It’s as though the writers aren’t quite confident the audience will appreciate the overriding metaphor of man and ape, the “are we so different— or are we actually the same?” quandary that’s, you know, the point of the entire franchise.
The directness of the man-and-ape comparisons also has the unfortunate side effect of highlighting just how boring most of the human characters are. Malcolm is a sturdy but uncomplicated man of action, levelheaded and pragmatic. Dreyfus is a little more conflicted thanks to Oldman’s performance and a nice scene with a jerry-rigged iPad that lends depth to his motivation. Otherwise the apes are far more interesting than Russell and Smit-McPhee’s blandly noble homo sapiens.
Director Matt Reeves is perfectly aware the apes are the stars of the show. Though the film does a nice job of making it hard to take a rooting interest in either side— a real feat for a post-apocalyptic movie to even make you consider cheering for the other species— you get the impression he might secretly prefer the other team. The apes are amazingly rendered, and their moral dilemma is more compelling, to say nothing of the fact that the humans’ enclave looks like almost every other dystopian town while the ape society is something so new and imaginative.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the summer’s best blockbuster, in large part because it actually has a thought or two to share and real sympathy for its characters. That doesn’t mean it skimps on the popcorn-movie thrills, though, best showcased in a massive battle sequence that Reeves beautifully choreographs. In one particular shot, an ape leaps onto the top of a tank and disables it, all while the turret spins in full rotations, giving the viewer a 360-degree view of the melee. Later, Malcom sprints through an ape-infested building in search of an exit in one long, frantic take. In both cases Reeves (who directed Cloverfield and Let Me In) shows a mastery of space, orientation, and movement. He can maintain significant momentum without sacrificing coherence.
What further sets Dawn of the Planet of the Apes apart from the year’s other blockbusters is its equal facility with ideas and images. The eye-popping special effects are used in service of the concept, not just to cook up more sequences of fireballs and chaos. The movie is unashamed of both its genre trappings and its preoccupation with heady questions, namely the notion that peace might be inevitably unstable among the so-called higher forms of life, and that self-awareness is an inherently doomed adaptation.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.