It’s rare when a fantasy-based film reaches a level of such sophisticated nuance it is on par with more reality based fare. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes achieves that rarified standard despite some very minor missteps.
Ten years have passed since the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). In the interim, the human race is on the verge of extinction due to the Simian Flu (presented with brilliant yet chilling succinctness at the film’s opening). A relatively small colony of survivors living in the nature overrun ruins of San Francisco, led by survivalists Malcom (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), try to eke out a meager existence. Meanwhile, across the bay, a thriving simian colony exists, still led by Caesar (Andy Serkis, reprising the role), and his “lieutenants” Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and Koba (Toby Kebbell). When a search party from San Francisco comes across the sons of Ceasar and Rocket (Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and Ash (Larramie Doc Shaw)), a misunderstanding occurs which sets of a chain of events which lead down the path to the inevitable conclusion that was presented in the original Planet of the Apes.
It has been said that the best science fiction has something to say; that it is allegorical to the prevailing concerns and issues that are taking place in real life. Where Dawn differs from most is that it is not heavy handed in terms of what is being critiqued (no doubt in part due to that one of the opposing sides is not human in the literal sense). Current foreign politics and affairs, LGBT rights issues, gun control, reactionary jingoism, generational disenfranchisement, tragedy engendered by fearful misunderstanding…all of these are represented…or maybe none of them. The beauty of this is that this film boils down to the primal essence of all of these concerns…the need to survive; a need both sides share, but only a handful are forward thinking enough to understand that survival may only come from mutual cooperation…and that those few may not be enough to turn the tide.
For the first time, Andy Serkis is given top billing in a live-action film as a CGI character; and boy, does he earn it! The motion captured, CGI rendered apes are a wonder to behold (though the CGI is far from perfect at times, especially when rendered in 3D). The film takes a similar route of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) by devoting much of its first act to represent the simian society. Unlike the latter film, there’s no human in evidence and, in effect, no analogue for the viewer to identify with. Serkis, in effect, has the Herculean task of making a CGI character identifiable, if not sympathetic. His performance in Rise is child’s play to what he does so beautifully here. Cesar is now a family man with a sick companion Cornelia (Judy Greer, whose character’s name implies an ancestral connection between Cesar and Dr. Cornelius of the original Apes) and a rebellious teenager (Thurston). These family issues, and the leadership of the tribe, weigh heavy on Cesar’s shoulders and Serkis conveys it powerfully. Praise in this regard cannot be effusive enough. He is the literal lynchpin of this film and if he did not work, the whole thing would fall apart. Just for the sheer scope of the responsibility the actor bears in keeping this film together, Serkis should get an Oscar nomination. On the flip (human) side, Malcolm similarly shares Cesar’s situation. His own son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is just as disconnected from his father in his own way, and initially unwilling to accept his father’s new lover, the medically capable Ellie (Keri Russell). He tries to keep the peace between the humans and the apes, but his partner Dreyfus fear and mistrust of the apes is a practically insurmountable stumbling block.
The only problem here is that this film’s 3D presentation is more three dimensional than some of the performances, which causes an odd disconnect between story and viewer at times to the extent that it quixotically lengthens the two hour screen time. In fact, Oldman is an actor of some respect and renown, yet the character he plays could essentially be played by anyone. There’s nothing here for him to really sink his thespian chops into. However, The Walking Dead’s Kirk Acevedo does stand out as a “racist” character that one would love to hate under normal circumstances; however the character’s motivations are so relatable as to make him borderline sympathetic (more on that in a minute). As does his simian opposite number, Koba (who you will recall as horrifically scarred ape who pushed Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) off the San Francisco Bridge), who bears an irrational hatred for humans; but, given the events of the first film, is also understandable. The journey of father/son reconnection is handled well in the end by both Thurston and McPhee, but for most of the film they are so annoying you’re left with the sense of wanting to slap them aside the head (which, given that they’re playing self-involved teenagers, is precisely the point). However, there are practically too many characters for even an accomplished director like Matt Reeves (Felicity) to juggle around and make three-dimensional.
The film is lavishly shot, with the set designers and cinematographers working together to create a believably rendered post-apocalyptic world. The City of San Francisco looks to have been assimilated by the practically tropical woodland that the apes inhabit. Michael Giacchino’s score evoking a sense of foreboding unease even as it emulates his Star Trek efforts at times; an unease that is also engendered by the tone of the story by scriptwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback.
Ostensibly, there are two characters that can be characterized as the story’s antagonists, but the real villains are “fear” and “mistrust”. There are no true villains in the fictional sense. That sets this film apart from others even as it undermines it. The inevitable battle between humans and apes is a sight to behold (after all, who doesn’t want to see apes riding on horseback armed to the teeth with deadly ordinance?). However, the geek power of the scene is balanced by the tragedy that underlies it. What would be an “Aw, YEAH!” moment in any other film is instead a moment of somber tragedy. There is no joy to be found in the slaughter of innocents on both sides just to satisfy the jingoistic agenda of a very select few. In the end, this film is also about differences; or rather, the existence of similarity within difference.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not a standard, feel good summer blockbuster. It’s a film that takes risks, and does so with laudable, beautiful presentation. While it does have some yawn inducing (i.e. boring) spots, it is a triumph in filmmaking, building on the world presented in Rise. For all its fantasy, it’s rooted in very real problems. Don’t expect any cheers or a pat resolution. This film serves as a sobering indictment of the consequences of allowing fear, antipathy, and hate to rule the day.