Director: Matt Reeves
Writers: Mark Bomback, Rik Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Cast: Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Toby Kebbell
“You are no ape.”
In stark contrast to TMNT and other sugarloaded, hyperactive blockbusters, the first offering in the recent Planet of the Apes prequels came as a revelation in how to do a modern CGI heavy blockbuster. Combining deep emotional storytelling with truly stunning motion captured characters, it showed the way forward, a way which unfortunately few have since followed.
Fortunately the resurrected Apes franchise has been granted another shot at the big time with its prequel-sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a dark epic of family, community, and war.
If you missed the first one, the new Planet of the Apes films are big budget event movies which fill the theater with sonic booms and beautiful light shows. They are true event movies made for mass appeal, to be enjoyed by young and old audiences alike, but underneath all of the fireworks and booming orchestral score, they still manage to sneak in steadily paced human relationships and surprisingly deep psychology and subtle character progression.
The first film was even bold enough to go against the grain and attempt a unique story structure. Essentially being two films in one, Rise of the Planet of the Apes engaged audiences with a deeply emotional family tragedy, before switching gears and broadening out into an all out science fiction action fest.
Dawn continues this unorthodox approach to storytelling, chronicling the epic clash of burgeoning civilisations in a post apocalyptic landscape. Human survivors of a devastating pandemic and a colony of super intelligent apes both look to establish there own way of life while avoiding war, in a familiar tale of what happens when an advanced civilisation meets a primitive one unfolds into a sweeping epic.
As expected, the special effects are incredible to behold. The assortment of motion captured Apes instantly draw you into their complex world and never cease to amaze. The ambition of the detail drawn on such an expansive canvas means there are one or two obvious tells that this is CGI but compared to anything else this is as sophisticated as it gets.
As the magnetic core of the first film, Andy Serkis again remains every bit as compelling as the CGI leader of the apes Caesar, and deserves more credit than he ever seems to receive. The sheer breadth and depth of emotion captured by the increasingly impressive motion capture technology is every bit a result of Serkis’s craft as it is the expensive technology.
The level of emotion wrought across Caesar’s simian features is enough to put any leading actor to shame and succeeds in provoking a strange mixture of empathy and fear. Caesar is definitely more ape than he is human in his mannerisms, facial expressions and movement. But that reflection of sentience in the eyes – the unmistakably intelligence – is always tempered by his bestial instinct. Serkis and director Matt Reeves seem to know instinctively where to draw the line between an intelligent ape and a human actor.
This time Caesar is joined by a large cast of striking ape characters who are given prominent roles, most notably Caesar’s son Blue Eyes, and the unpredictably second in command Koba, played intensely by the always excellent Toby Kebell.
The mostly silent and subdued Blue Eye’s has a powerful coming of age story ark which takes him from an inadequate youth struggling to live up to the towering presence of his father, through to shell shocked victim during the brutal battles with the humans, and finally to an uncertain youth torn between his loyalties to the two towering leaders of his people. In some scenes it becomes difficult to look at his traumatised features without blubbering as the world moves around him at a pace his inexperience is unable to cope with. This story arc is clearly an important one which is presumably sowing the seeds for a prominent role in the next film – one we are looking forward to bearing fruit.
One of the more curious examples of the complex and sophisticated storytelling though is found in the character of Koba. Continuing his tragic role from the first film he begins as an intense and unpredictable ally of Caesar, but one clearly marked out as a catalyst for trouble. Hideously scarred from his torture at the hands of humans, full of rage and the desire for vengeance, and ultimately psychotic; in many ways he is the archetypal villain. But the writing goes to great lengths to give the audience great sympathy and empathy for his position. Through his back story in the first film, his position of friendship and great loyalty for Caeasar, and his distrust of humans which turns out to be correct; it is hard to put a finger on the point when Koba is finally tipped over the edge and becomes the antagonist.
During one spectacular sequence when Koba leads a blood thirsty charge against the human encampment after some dubious actions, it remains difficult to know whether we are supposed to be or cheering him on or hoping someone can stop him – exactly the confused feelings experienced by Blue Eye’s.
The story blurs the lines of morality better than any film concerned with war or tribalism than we can remember.
The human characters seem to have fared less well with other critics who have dismissed their roles as two dimensional and peripheral compared to the apes. This is a little harsh given the decent performances from Jason Clark and Gary Oldman, and the fact that this is a film primarily about the apes. The humans are mostly there to fill the roles usually occupied by aliens or supernatural beings and in this light they actually provide much more back story and counterbalance to the main characters and so should be considered a success.
The only real shred of disappointment comes from the final sequence which, while undeniably grandiose and epic, still falls into the cliche trap of a heroic confrontation on top of a tall building. The vertical finale has been seen in dozens of super hero blockbusters and big budget franchise reboots recently and is getting predictable and boring. The set up for the clash of good and evil is a little contrived and cheesy, even giving the human characters a convenient opportunity for redemption which feels a bit tacked on and distracting while the main battle is happening among the apes. Culminating after so much subtle character development, emotional depth and moral ambiguity, it feels a little disappointing to see Dawn ramp up its blockbuster sensibilities in such a conventional way – but then this is exactly what the first film did.
It is hard at times to remember that this is a blockbuster film aiming for broad appeal. The sheer quality and depth of writing is not often seen in such expensive and ambitious projects. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a masterful demonstration of how a big budget, special effects laden film can still retain a subtle edge and a steady, meaningful build up. When it wants to, it blows most action based films out of the water, but most of the time it delivers a fascinating and emotional character led story every bit as original as its predecessor.