Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The Planet of the Apes franchise has struggled to find its niche of late. An ill fated remake was followed by a lifeless reboot, and this summer we are treated to a sequel to that reboot of a remake of a franchise. If you have already fled screaming, I can understand. Hollywood has a pretty dismal track record with reboots of old franchises, and between Amazing Spider Man 2, Godzilla, and the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja “Oh-My-God What Happened to Your Face?” Turtles, this is promising to be a hell of a summer for disappointing re-treads. That being said, I think Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (DPA) is a quality movie, and perhaps just good enough to generate fresh interest in a franchise that has been teetering on the brink for several films.
To the Trees!
The credits do a remarkable job of catching viewers up who may have skipped the previous movie (because James Franco induces that reaction in most viewers.) Almost all of the questions I entered the theater with about the plot were answered in the first 20 minutes, leaving my brain free to enjoy the film. An ethically challenged lab created a serum to fight Alzheimer’s disease, but tests on monkeys reveal that it has increased their intelligence to roughly human levels. I know, sucks for them. James Franco teaches one chimp, Caesar, language and culture. Caesar then engineers a prison break and takes his newly minted clan of intelligent simians into the forests of California. At the same time, a bio-engineered simian flu escapes the lab, wiping out about 9/10ths of the human population. Yay science!
Fast forward 10 years. The apes live in a hunter-gatherer society, blessed by prosperity thanks to the disappearance of humans. Caesar leads the tribe, which we find has implemented many improvements, such as building a kick-ass monkey fort and creating a school to educate their young. Trouble intrudes on this idyllic version of monkey Robinson Crusoe when humans suddenly appear again. Attempting to repair a hydro-electric power station to provide energy to their precarious settlement, the survivors of the simian plague accidentally trespass on Caesars domain. A stand off occurs, Caesar is both fair and tough, and apes and humans decide to live and let live. Yeah. Nope.
The meat of the plot centers around the feelings of fear and anger that flare up in both the human and ape camps. Convergent evolution has ensured that both tribes have an equal scattering of assholes amongst them. Some humans fear that apes still harbor the plague, and will cause the final destruction of mankind. Some apes remember the horrors of human labs and cages, and figure that humanity must be crushed before it can go back to subjugating apes. Caesar and his human counterpart, Malcolm, want to use the pressing of the reset button as a chance to normalize relationships. Their optimism is tested as escalating confrontations push apes and humans down the path to war.
Three Ring Serkis
As everyone will tell you, the real star of the picture is Andy Serkis, the ubiquitous motion-capture performer who brought Gollum to life for Peter Jackson’s movies. Those people aren’t lying to you. The motion capture is flawless, and the digital apes are about the best use of CG that I’ve seen in a movie. The uncanny valley disappears for apes, whose facial features and bodily movements seem tailor-made for the slightly stiff puppet-like movements that computers create. Serkis truly makes this film about the apes. I could frankly have spent the whole run time watching the apes as they went about their business of manufacturing a society. The clash between Caesar and his lieutenant Koba is fascinating, and hardly needs any human intervention to create a dynamic plot.
The monkeys are so well rendered and brought to life, the movie may well have been stronger had humans been merely a whispered threat from off-stage instead of an actual antagonist for the apes to physically fight. Unlike other feature films that have sacrificed an engaging non-human story line in favor of a tacked on human interest story (Godzilla, all four Transformers movies) DPA sticks mostly to its best feature: the monkeys and their society. Even when humanity becomes the major cause of strife, it is still viewed through the prism of ape culture.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the movie that the Planet of the Apes franchise desperately needed. It provides a credible and well articulated back story that moves the ball forward. The relationship between Caesar, Koba, and the rest of the pack gives plenty of material for additional films set before the iconic first film. I find myself looking forward to the looming war between the species, as both camps have been handled well. That being said, I think DPA may have discovered the secret to the originals success: The apes. If you have interesting apes, the human element is almost unnecessary. The original was pretty much a guided tour of an alien culture, as seen through one man’s eyes. There was no human ascendancy angle, no winks or nods towards how amusingly human the apes were. They were apes, with their own story, and that story only incidentally involved humans. I hope this trend continues, as we truly have a great chance to experience a unique perspective thanks to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.