Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
US (2014) Dir. Matt Reeves
The inevitable sequel to 2011’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes reboot of the successful sci-fi franchise ups the ante with its tally of talking apes from one to an entire colony in this dark, dystopian tale.
Set ten years after the first film and most of the human population has been wiped out by the ALZ-113 virus, now named Simian Flu. In San Francisco a group of around a hundred people survived but live under unpleasant but manageable conditions, while the intelligent apes under the guidance of Caesar have thrived, developing a robust and fruitful community for themselves and, through strength in sheer numbers, control the land.
A small group of scientists enter the Muir Woods in search of a nuclear plant which will restore power to their buildings but the apes’ colony is in the way. When one of the group, Carver (Kirk Acevedo), shoots Caesar’s son Blue Eyes which immediately jeopardises any dialogue until one scientist Malcolm (Jason Clarke) returns alone to show Caesar the nuclear plant and broker a deal. Caesar accepts on the terms of no guns but some of the other humans remain cautious while an angry ape named Koba thinks Caesar is going soft.
Pierre Boulle’s original novel was a straight up sci-fi tale that switched the man/ape dichotomy, positing the apes as the advanced and dominant race. This film, like its 2011 predecessor and the later ones in the original series, chooses to explore the relationship between man and ape on a more civil and cooperative level. Of course it has to go wrong somewhere down the line but the twist here is that it is the apes, not the humans, who provide the catalyst for this fall out.
Not that the humans aren’t completely without culpability, as naturally they have severe reservations about trying to communicate and reason with essentially feral but uniquely intelligent primates. When Malcolm returns to his community and tells the chief Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) about the talking apes, he isn’t believed until Caesar and his entire colony show up en force to warn the humans to stay away.
Malcolm, his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and nurse wife Ellie (Keri Russell) form a bond with Caesar which enrages Koba who thinks Caesar is showing preference to the humans over his fellow apes. Caesar justifies this by explaining a war with humans will only cost ape lives which he doesn’t want; Koba accepts this but after witnessing to much leniency shown towards the humans, he steals a gun from their community and puts his pernicious plan for a violent showdown into action.
In the previous film the audience was firmly my behind the apes as they fought against their human oppressors – this time round the lines have been blurred and we find ourselves with essentially four sides open to our support. Within the ape colony we have Caesar and those who chose to follow his lead of benevolence and the violent uprising headed by Koba; in the human camp Malcolm and his family are caught in between both feuds with the added headache of Dreyfus and his bellicose vendetta against the apes.
The script is carefully crafted to allow each side to fully develop and give a valid root for their cases, even if they are essentially misguided, playing on the ingrained differences of the respective intellects of the humans and apes. It’s a rare case when an ape has a stronger moral compass than a human but that is the role Caesar plays although he remains guided by his primate instincts in terms of meting out punishment. The humans however are less thoughtful and it’s all guns blazing at the first sign of any intimidation. Go figure!
Whereas Rise… was based roughly on the Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, this film is largely an original story with a small nod to Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, with an added message about the virtues of diplomacy, discussion and the old chestnut of abusing power. Some scenes might feel a little contrived, at least among the ape colony, but overall the temptation to be overtly didactic is largely resisted and events play out in a suitably dramatic but wholly engaging fashion.
As charming and oddly easily acceptable as the actors in ape suits were in the original films, modern CGI technology has allowed us to see the fully realised depiction of apes acting as humans. Just as it was in Rise… the rendering of the apes by WETA is a sight to behold, not just visually accurate and utterly convincing but superbly nuanced in the physical movements and facial expressions.
Andy Serkis and his amazing mimicry skills once again create a remarkably plausible character in Caesar, his motion capture performance being a unique blend of ape and human characteristics. Matching Serkis is Toby Kebbell as Korba, whose ape is edgier, grouchier and all the more unpleasant, along with Nick Thurston as Blue Eyes and Karin Konoval as the Orangutan Maurice who bonds with Alexander. Outside of Gary Oldman and Kodi-Smit-McPhee, the human cast were mostly unknown to me but they all interacted well with their CGI counterparts.
Director Matt Reeves – who previously helmed Cloverfield – keeps the pace going steadily for the two-hour run and handles the dramatic scenes with a detached sensitivity but he seems to enjoy himself more on the battle scenes. Indulging the typical bombast of the blockbuster genre there are bullets, explosions and extravagant deaths to be found here, with the body count of both human and simian piling up very quickly.
The oblique ending leaves the door open for a third film which by right should take us up to where the original 1968 film began. If this is a trilogy, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is an intense second instalment that impresses greatly while moving the story forward, striking a nice balance between popcorn flick and intelligent fantasy drama.