Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the gift that keeps on giving in a franchise of surprising and remarkable power.
2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was something of a minor miracle. It jettisoned the camp sensibilities of the original series while avoiding any comparison to Tim Burton’s critically maligned 2001 remake. The film utilized cutting-edge motion capture technology to bring its primate cast to life in lieu of hokey latex suits. But most shockingly of all, it returned the series to the realm of hard science fiction. Rise was a film of ideas, and used plausible scientific research as the springboard for its concepts. It was a film that was better than it had any right to be. Now its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, has done the impossible and bested its predecessor in nearly every way. Its vision of a post-apocalyptic America where Apes rule and humans scrape to get by is stunning to behold. And though the marketing has done a good job of selling the film’s action elements, it has undersold its empathy, warmth, grace, and humanity.
In case you have forgotten, or are walking into this film cold, the previous film’s exploits dealt with the infant primate Caesar, who was the offspring of an ape test lab subject undergoing experimental treatment to combat Alzheimer’s in humans. Through a series of events Caesar learned of mankind’s compassion, as well as their cruelty. Eventually Caesar leads a simian rebellion and is indirectly responsible for releasing the experimental drug into the open, which turns out to have devastating effects on mankind while simultaneously making the apes more intelligent and powerful than ever. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up ten years later, and the apes have built a home for themselves on the outskirts of San Francisco. They have wives and children, have developed their own sign language, hunt together, feed together, teach their children reading and writing, and generally operate as a single communal unit led by none other than Caesar himself. There have been no signs of humans for almost three winters now and they are presumed dead. Of course, that doesn’t last long. It turns out the humans are holed up in a small section of the city, and the power needed to run their basic amenities is dwindling. The solution is to reroute power from an old hydroelectric dam into the city, but there is one minor caveat – the apes live right next to it. It would be a shame to spoil exactly where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes its narrative, but what is most surprising about the picture is it often defies conventional Hollywood blockbuster expectations. It would have been easy for this film to be a human vs. ape war film (worry not, the action is still plentiful), but instead its take is more quiet and measured than anticipated and it is the power struggle between the apes themselves that is the film’s most fascinating element.
The two dominant characters in the film are the ape leader Caesar (once again played by an immaculate Andy Serkis, more on him later) and his brother in arms, Koba (an intense performance by the young Toby Kebbell). While Caesar seems to have grown more wise and weary in the ten years since we last saw him, Koba has let his hatred of the humans who tested and abused him fester in his heart. Koba has no compassion for humanity and sees them as the enemy. His loyalty lies solely with the apes, and though his respect for Caesar is deep, he is wary of his leader’s respect toward humans. Unlike Koba, Caesar has seen the good in man and doesn’t wish for confrontation between the two factions. But Caesar is no fool, and even he realizes that relations between apes and humans will always be strained. Apes blame humans for a lifetime of experiments and incarceration. Humans blame apes for the virus that wiped out most of mankind. The film does an admirable job of laying out this dichotomy and juggling the politics in between. But the humans in the film are just used as a jumping off point for far more interesting internal struggles within the ape world. They are necessary as a point of comparison to the apes’ own demons, but they are woefully underwritten and at times shoehorned into the narrative. If the film has one major shortcoming it is that its human characters simply cannot measure up to the apes’ more nuanced and fascinating depiction. When you hire actors like the great Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke to ground your film, it would be expected that they have something to do. Unfortunately they are wasted with bland characterizations and suspect motivations. The apes rule here, and perhaps it would have been smarter to have them carry their own movie instead of relying on a human element to draw audiences in. But that would be one risk too many in a film already bursting with anti-blockbuster sentiment.
Director Matt Reeves, taking over the reins of the franchise from Rupert Wyatt, creates a full-fledged living, breathing post-apocalyptic world and directs it with great sensitivity. He relishes the small moments that elicit strong emotions, like Caesar seeing his infant son born, that same infant innocently discovering humans for the first time, a human child sharing his book with an orangutan, and a human survivor grieving over pictures of the past, among many others. These moments are often wordless in their approach and Reeves lets the camera linger with an observational quality that immediately sucks you into the screen and makes you a part of the action. Reeves is juggling a lot of themes here and the film’s tonal quality is ever-evolving as the story moves towards dark realizations and an uncertain ending. He handles all this with aplomb. And when the film heads into more conventional action territory Reeves understands not only where the money shots are needed, but that in order for the audience to care the emotional stakes have to be through the roof. It has been a while since a Hollywood blockbuster was this contemplative and sure-handed in its approach. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is as good as it is because of Matt Reeves.
Director of Photography Michael Seresin’s work on the film is gorgeous in its painterly approach, and he pulls off quite a few astonishing shots — the best of which takes place during one of the film’s beautifully staged action scenes: as an ape mounts a tank, the camera is mounted stationary as the turret spins in circles, giving the audience a 365 degree view of the carnage. The production design by James Chinlund is stunning to behold as he fluidly moves between the towering wooden structures built by the apes and the overgrown wasteland that San Francisco has become. Michael Giacchino’s score (though not particularly memorable on first viewing) certainly drives the action forward and is restrained when needed. It’s not your typical bombastic blockbuster score, which may raise its stock upon further listening. And while the achievements of those listed above should be celebrated, the real stars of the show are undoubtedly the wizards at Weta Digital and the motion capture performers who provide the backbone to their creations. The special effects work is jaw-dropping in its execution, whether it be the exhilarating hunt that opens the film or the tight closeups on the apes’ faces. What matters here is that it feels real. There is never a moment where you doubt that these are living, breathing individuals who just so happen to be apes. The CGI is completely seamless and immersive with much of the motion capture being done on location with no green screen. The film is a promising breakthrough in the art of motion capture performance, as it daringly points the way forward in filmic evolution.
And now we come to Andy Serkis – the godfather of motion capture performance, who has done more to legitimize it as an extension of traditional acting than anyone in his field. This is the man who gave us both Gollum and King Kong, and now he gives us Dawn’s Caesar – easily the greatest achievement in motion capture history to date. Serkis’s performance is one of strength and dignity. It is rich and studied in its approach, while remaining accessible. Serkis does more with his physicality and a glance from his worried eyes than any words could ever provide; he commands your attention from the moment he appears on screen to his final closeup. It’s impossible to talk about his craft without gushing! At this point it is clear that this is no mere parlor trick — Serkis is the real deal, one of the greatest actors of his generation boldly going where most refuse to go. He and the folks at Weta Digital are pioneers showing us the promise of our cinematic future. Motion capture is not a replacement for traditional acting, but rather a tool to be harnessed, used creatively, and treated with respect. The drum will be beat loudly to have Serkis recognized for his accomplishment just as it has many times before, but no award will ever communicate the magnitude of his achievement. Caesar is a performance for the ages.
It is rare to find a film funded by the Hollywood machine that is this rich in its thematic execution. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is special in that regard. It would be easy to lament over the film’s few shortcomings, but that would seem petty when looking at the larger picture. This is a film of overwhelming emotion and power and you are not likely to see a better movie of its kind this year. Go to the theater and let it wash over you. It will be money well spent.