Apes; they’re so much like us. They start off as promising, cute, smart and full of life, and it isn’t long before they’re dropped into the grim reality of the real world.
And so it goes with ape franchises. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was an unexpected gem, a film that served as a prequel on a technicality but was entirely its own story. The use of unrivaled motion capture visual effects was enhanced tenfold by the film’s careful knack for suspense, its crafty long takes and tracking shots, its creative action scenes, the wordless expressions of pathos and so much more.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” could no longer be the somewhat whimsical and fantastical story and still be the dark and serious, world-impacting epic the blockbuster crowd expects. The apes have learned much from man, modeling even their most conventional stories in every way.
Shortly after the events of the first prequel, the virus that made the apes stronger and smarter killed millions of humans around the world in a tragic epidemic. Many of those remaining survivors lost their lives trying to stave off the ape uprising, leaving humanity in quarantined colonies in the shells of their former cities.
10 years after he led the ape revolution, Caesar (Andy Serkis) is head of a large tribe of apes in the remains of San Francisco. They’ve built a thriving home, orangutans educate children to never kill other apes, and they haven’t seen a human in over two years. But when a hunting party led by the scientist Malcolm (Jason Clarke) arrives, tensions immediately flair.
“Dawn” is a film of mistrust, fear and the consequences of survival. It’s a blockbuster brimming with ideas and human parallels but not as large of a metaphor as to be cumbersome. It involves how Caesar tries to help the humans re-establish electricity to their colony while other humans and apes alike grow restless at the alliance.
Yet you wish the film would be more creative about its apocalyptic scenario. The apes of “Dawn” are no longer the dialogue free, intelligent beasts of “Rise,” ones who conveyed so much only through their actions and expressions, and in Caesar’s case, who stole the show when he bellowed his first word.
“Dawn’s” apes can all speak, exchange sign language, use weapons, build traditional family units, ride horses and display all the worst human emotions. Caesar and company are no longer the creative apes hurling sewer covers, electrocuting ape keepers, traversing scaffolding under the Golden Gate bridge or shoving busses as defense from bullets.
Now they’re the ones packing heat, becoming traditional movie badasses double welding machine guns and riding through explosions on horses. Director Matt Reeves has replaced the bright green colors and settings of the original with mostly war-torn, bullet ridden special effects set pieces of the golden brown variety. An ape on a horse may be a new sight, but this isn’t something we haven’t seen before in countless summer spectacles.
That lack of intelligence seems to have spread to the story. It’s only a predictable matter of time before Caesar’s right hand ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) tries to overthrow Caesar’s rule, or that Caesar’s son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) may betray him, or that the human tribe leader (Gary Oldman) would have no choice but to bring out their weapon stockpile if it means survival.
Whether dynamics between apes and apes, apes and humans or humans and other humans, these are not unfamiliar character tropes and conflict structures. The warring tribes story is not unlike “Avatar,” or the many films “Avatar” itself is based on.
“Rise” suffered from its share of plot contrivances too, but it thrived in the pathos filled interactions between John Lithgow and Caeasar. It was a joy to watch Caesar develop and grow. “Dawn” gets boring whenever an ape is not on the screen and a human takes over. The compassion in the screenplay is gone, and it’s a story that just marches on toward an inevitable sequel and callback to the original film.
And yet what “Dawn” does right is exactly why this blockbuster is being praised as highly as it is. It’s high time we recognize that motion capture performers are the real deal. Serkis is fantastic, but then so is his ape army. And the special effects used to bring those performances to life are fantastic. Reeves doesn’t squander his gifts either, delivering action as good as any this year. It doesn’t get much better than a pissed off ape charging in guns blazing on a horse or better yet later, a POV shot aboard a tank.
“Dawn” could never have been “Rise,” but it sure does ape the style of some of the finest.