The eighth film in a franchise spanning nearly 50 years, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is best judged in the context of the current trilogy, of which it’s the second installment after Rupert Wyett’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (though shouldn’t the dawn come before you rise?). Comparing the new films to the original starring Charlton Heston is increasingly difficult as the story departs from the plot of Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel, and Tim Burton’s 2001 failed reboot invites comparison only in jest. I prefer the new trilogy anyway, not least because the story doesn’t take place on a distant moon (the use of CGI instead of rubber masks is also positive progress). Now, Earth is the planet of the apes, both literally and figuratively, offering a richer setting through which to examine the human-hominid relationship.
Director: Matt Reeves
Producers: Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Writers: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Pierre Boulle (novel)
Cinematographer: Michael Seresin
Editors: William Hoy, Stan Salfas
Music: Michael Giacchino
Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer, Jon Eyez
US Theatrical Release: July 11, 2014
US Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
The inevitable result of setting a quasi-sci-fi story on earth, however, is that an American city will be destroyed in spectacular fashion, possibly as the entire purpose of the film. Manhattan destructions mostly dried up after Knowing and Cloverfield, the latter of which was Reeves’ breakthrough as a director, and Chicago has had its beatings in the Batman and Transformers franchises. But San Francisco is the hot new city to ravage, in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Godzilla, and now the new Apes trilogy. Unfortunately for both the city and viewers of Dawn, Reeves ultimately succumbs to the need to steer everything toward another bombastic set piece (Apes brawling on an exploding skyscraper? Check.), and the deeper themes initiated in the previous film are mostly left in the debris.
Indeed, Dawn is two steps forward but one step backward on the evolutionary chain, regressing into the booming battle rhythms of the original Apes films and losing many of the nuanced ethical and moral questions in the process. There are so many parallels to dissect between the behavior of humans and apes, but everything is distilled here into forehead-slapping simplicity. Some would argue that Rise relied too heavily on CGI novelty and James Franco’s dimples, but I appreciated that it focused on the brains more than the brawn of the apes. In Rise the apes were frightening because they were wickedly smart; in Dawn they’re frightening because they’re just wicked and they have guns.
Set a decade after Rise, the sequel finds the laboratory-scarred apes still led by alpha chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis) and living in Ewok-like utopia in the Marin County backwoods. Humans have all but been eradicated from the earth due to simian flu, the norovirus accidentally released into the population at the end of the first film. San Francisco is grown over I Am Legend-style, with a band of a couple hundred humans who are quickly running out of sustainable energy (if there is anything besides a norovirus that can create hysteria in San Francisco, it’s uncharged Apple products). Led by level-headed Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and trigger-happy Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the humans believe their continued existence depends on access to an old hydroelectric dam, inconveniently located in the apes’ backyard. Their mission: negotiate with the apes and boot up the dam, at the point of a gun if necessary.
Negotiation is easier when you speak the same language, and allow me here to wonder how—and maybe more importantly, why—the apes developed such mastery of English, and why they continue to teach it to their young. Indeed they are highly evolved and learned basic vocabulary back at the lab, but learning the word “home” is different than learning the syntax and grammar needed to express “I used to think ape better than human. Now I know how much like them we are.” Either way, the addition of spoken English to this story unfortunately means we have to bear inexplicably out-of-breath apes talking like Cookie Monster imitating Yoda.
Anyway, the mission to Marin predictably goes awry, and ironically, so too do Reeves’ attempts at recapturing the humanistic dilemmas raised in the first film. There are a few moments of discovery in the frequently tense conflicts in Dawn, but most of the characters (both human and ape) are drawn with a paint roller - they are either good or evil and guilty or innocent, with no gray area in between. And as if it were necessary, the overwrought musical score is a flashing cue card telling you what emotion to feel through every scene. Both Rise and Dawn are next-gen achievements in visual effects, but Rise simply offered more complexity under the surface, raising all kinds of interesting questions about animal testing and domestication, Big Pharma, and primate intelligence.
Fortunately, what Dawn of the Planet of the Apes lacks in Big Ideas it mostly makes up for in technical wizardry and acting. Andy Serkis has been Hollywood’s motion-capture king for more than a decade, and it’s hard to know if it’s his acting or the technology that has improved in that time. Every facial muscle twitch that Serkis and the other ape actors exhibit is captured on screen, and the animation and CGI palette used to create the ape colony is simply astounding, at dawn and dusk and in rain and in sun. And although most of the human characters are cardboard cutouts, the Australian actor Jason Clarke makes the most of his role as the humble hero, even if he is the only human who actually earns our allegiance.
Reeves is signed on to complete the trilogy in 2016, and while Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a serviceable sequel (hitting all the dark tones expected), I fear that the story is falling into a predictable sci-fi/superhero franchise routine, with a hero vs. villain, tit-for-tat, back-and-forth arc. Caesar’s son is heavily groomed here to save the apes in the next film, but it will be disappointing if it continues as another game of King of the Hill. The nice thing about apes is that they’re much more complicated than aliens, and moving the story to Earth should have allowed for a more interesting plot than just another world war.