Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is something of a miracle.
Ostensibly a remake of J. Lee Thompson’s Battles For the Planet of the Apes (the fifth film in the original series), Matt Reeves’ refashioning of that picture is nothing less than a stirring marvel of a movie, brimming with emotion and style in equal measure. Daring in ways many modern big budget franchise films would never dare, Dawn is the result of putting cinema and character first, a rarity in an age where commitment to brand is usually priority number one for studios when expanding upon previous summer cash cows. But beyond showcasing Reeves as being one of the most exciting directorial talents in mainstream American filmmaking, the second installment in this new series of Apes films yet again proves that Andy Serkis is a God working amongst mere mortals, pushing the craft of performance capture acting into uncharted qualitative territories. In short, it’s the movie of the summer and will easily end up being one of 2014’s best.
From the opening frames, it’s clear that Reeves has decided to mold Dawn of the Planet of the Apes into a much more idiosyncratic vision than even Rupert Wyatt’s superlative predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Ten years have lapsed since the events of the first film and the apes cannot even remember the last time they’ve laid eyes on a human being. Meanwhile, they’ve established a tiny colony for themselves in the forest outside of San Francisco, complete with a school that hands down their most important values (“Ape Shall Never Kill Ape”). Caesar (Serkis) has graduated from full-blown revolutionary to being more of a benevolent Ape King, leading his followers toward living a peaceful existence in this newly formed primitive utopia.
Reeves immerses us in this world via a breathtaking stretch of visual storytelling. We open in media res, as Caesar leads the other male apes through a deer hunt (which ends in a spectacular battle between the tribe and a massive beast). Upon returning home, their mountainside community is explored as the apes speak exclusively through sign language. Their lack of human interaction has rendered verbal communication near obsolete, allowing Reeves to flex his “pure cinema” muscles. It’s a bold move for a summer tent pole, and further proof of Fox’s unexpected commitment to creating a new set of truly quality Apes pictures.
When we finally do meet a sparse band of human survivors, the tone feels akin to one of George A. Romero’s Dead films (I specifically kept thinking back to the horror master’s epic, unused draft of 1985’s Day of the Dead). Desperately attempting to reach a dam so that they can restore power (and, in turn, heat and electricity) to their own ramshackle keep, the homo sapiens ponder the true cause of this hellscape of an existence around campfires (the apes, of course, serving as the scapegoat for the world-wiping Simian Flu). Led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), there’s a second debate that dominates the discussions of these last men standing. Dreyfus stockpiles weapons in an attempt to prepare the survivors for all-out war, while Malcolm pleads for coexistence with their simian counterparts after a chance encounter allows him to see the emotional complexity of the apes’ world.
Reeves (along with co-writer Mark Bomback and Rise scribes Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) does a great job of never totally demonizing any of the human elements while also presenting them as a legitimate threat to the apes’ way of life. As the ethical debate regarding cohabitation rages within the humans’ home, the primates are also split into two factions concerning their potential “man problem”. Former medical experiment victim Koba (Toby Kebbell) rightfully damns all people for the scarring tests they subjected him to in their laboratories (describing his healed wounds as “human work”), while Caesar remembers the “good man” who rescued him from the same facility, raising him as his own. Koba is undoubtedly going to be the new nerd icon that emerges from Summer ’14, as he leads a full-on war near the movie’s climax, the apes firing machine guns as they charge the human city on horseback (!). It’s a dizzying set piece that delivers not only the season’s best moments of spectacle, but also features several hero shots of Koba wielding automatic weapons that seem destined to double as iPhone wallpapers for countless ape-loving geeks.
Yet no matter how great the rest of the ape actors are, this is still the Andy Serkis show. With Rise, Serkis turned Caesar into a fully fleshed character, but the young simian was still mostly learning to adapt to existence within the laws and confines of the human world. With Dawn, Caesar is now operating independently from any kind of oversight. He’s an individual, but with this autonomy comes the need for a guiding moral code (which will be tested to its very core by the film’s end). In many ways, Dawn is much more of a “coming of age” picture than the initial Apes reboot, as it finds our hero navigating uncertain moral terrain and learning from triumphs, mistakes and betrayal. This depth of soulful exploration gives Serkis an ample amount of opportunity to expand upon Caesar as a character, and the performance capture pioneer proves himself yet again to be one of the most gifted thespians of his generation. Utilizing his body and eyes like a painter does a canvas, every motion, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, is a puzzle piece to the complex whole of Caesar. And Serkis makes every moment count, creating an eccentric personality so complete that it’ll be a staggering disappointment once the Academy inevitably denies him a statue (or, even more realistically, a simple nomination) come next March.
If there’s a major complaint with the film, it’s that the movie isn’t three hours long and able to develop its human characters as thoroughly as it does their ape counterparts. Often, the script leans on tried and true apocalypse movie clichés in order to get us to feel for its somewhat underwritten characters. Dreyfus cries at pictures of his family. Ellie (Keri Russell) bonds with Malcolm’s son, Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee), by sharing her memories of the child she lost. Carver (Kirk Acevedo) fears and despises the “other” (which is the closest the film comes to replicating the originals’ comments on racism), as he blames the beasts for the disease that destroyed the world. Again, it’s all nothing you’ve never seen in a Romero zombie film or any of the movies which imitated that director’s character-driven take on a world’s send scenario (and, to be fair, credit must be paid to Reeves for even being able to evoke the air of those classics). But in an age where Michael Bay gets to jack off to robots and military jingoism for four straight two-and-a-half-hour interminable plastic nightmares, one can’t help but wonder why the hell ten extra minutes weren’t tacked on to help add dimension to the film’s essential human characters (an addition which would still see the film as clocking in at fifteen minutes less than the shortest Transformers atrocity).
However, while the film may lack sufficient original characterization, it makes up for this deficiency in metaphor and subtext. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the rare big studio franchise films where every bullet fired carries with it the harshest of consequences. Just as the original series possessed a cynical attitude regarding the nature of man, Dawn is inherently a meditation on the osmotic, poisoning essence of violence. Even when it’s entertaining (such as the aforementioned ape blitzkrieg), there is no wanton destruction trotted out for the sake of empty fireworks. Every savage act perpetrated by beast and man alike threatens to vanquish any semblance of hope for a tranquil future. Should Dawn of the Planet of the Apes go on to become a massive hit (as I predict a movie this good can and will), it would be the most dire and melancholic mainstream pulp tragedy since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
From a technical standpoint, Dawn is as lovely a large budget movie as we’ve had in some time. Michael Seresin (Midnight Express, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) shoots the film with a painter’s eye for composition, utilizing blacks and browns to accentuate the material’s inherent darkness with visual strokes that often resemble a kind of pop art Goya. The fact that Reeves (along with cutters William Hoy and Stan Salfas) holds certain shots for prolonged periods (you could pull numerous “portraits of Caesar” from the picture) only enhances this painterly approach, letting the viewer soak in his frame’s meticulous detail. Dawn is a movie that positively drips with craft and love for its source, right down to Michael Giacchino’s percussion-heavy, Goldsmith-referencing score.
Summer 2014 has been a bit of a bust thus far at American multiplexes, serving up only one real out and out comedic triumph (22 Jump Street), a middling monster movie (Godzilla), and several shit sandwiches (Trans4mers, The Amazing Spider-Man 2). Meanwhile, a visionary sci-fi masterpiece (Snowpiercer) has struggled to find an audience, thanks to its studio-perceived niche appeal (despite showcasing Captain America himself). Thankfully, Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis have arrived to deliver the summer blockbuster we so desperately need (but, judging from Trans4mers’ box office, might not necessarily deserve). Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a true rarity — a piece of epic tent pole cinema which treats it’s audience like intelligent adults, trusting that we won’t reject a film that believes rousing entertainment and intellectual engagement aren’t mutually exclusive. Though it may focus on a group of super intelligent apes, Dawn comments on the human condition in universal ways, providing insight into the methods through which we love and destroy one another. In short, Reeves has delivered a bona fide big budget masterwork, sure to delight both fans of the old school series and newcomers who couldn’t tell Roddy from Adam. It’s incredible.