YES, MONKEYS talking is pretty dumb, let’s face it, but the Planet of the Apes franchise has always, really, been about reflecting upon ourselves. Director Matt Reeves has followed this vein and it shows: He’s managed to craft a thrilling, emotionally resonant and surprisingly intelligent film that’s about, ostensibly, talking monkeys with machine guns.
What could so easily topple over into outright camp silliness emerges as a philosophical, Shakespearean meditation on, among other things, the foibles of war and familial responsibility. It also happens to feature an angry chimpanzee riding a horse and leaping through fire while dual-wielding M16s (in slow-motion). Despite some rather stock narrative turns and stereotypical characters, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a compelling sequel that stands on its own terms.
Set 10 years after the ‘Simian Flu’ virus has wiped out human civilisation, Dawn follows a middle-aged Caesar (leader of the revolution in Rise) as he governs a small society of apes in the Muir Woods. When a group of surviving humans from a ruined San Francisco stumble upon their territory, a conflict begins to simmer between the two communities.
The post-apocalyptic setting is certainly nothing new if you haven’t lived under a rock for the past decade, and if you’ve played The Last of Us recently it’s almost an exact replica, but it still makes for some striking imagery and an immersive atmosphere. Gas stations overgrown with vines, tower blocks strewn with rubble, forests thick with misty dew – all very familiar, of course – but it’s a credit to Reeves that it doesn’t feel familiar.
Though the endgame is a relatively foregone conclusion – this is a distant prequel to the original ’68 Apes, after all – and the plot rarely deviates from expectation, the maturity of the themes presented set this apart from your standard multi-million dollar summer blockbuster. In an industry where we expect city-levelling destruction to accompany the end of every big-budget monstrosity, it’s a pleasure to see a film that sets out to explore such hefty issues as war, mercy and, of course, the nature of humanity.
Naturally there are some exceptionally well-polished action sequences throughout the film to go alongside these themes but their scale is proportional; moreover, they never outstay their welcome. The opening scene is breathtaking in this regard, showcasing apes on the hunt in the woods, swinging from branch to branch, brandishing spears. Michael Giacchino’s score is rousing and militant enough to get the blood pumping too; just don’t look at the horrifically puntastic names for the songs on the soundtrack.
Since the human characters, helmed by a functional Jason Clarke and a criminally underused Gary Oldman are a considerable deal less interesting than their ape counterparts, it largely falls to the simian cast to carry the film. Crikey Moses do they carry it. They carry it so well I began to wonder why they bothered even having a human cast.
Needless to say the special effects on the motion-captured apes are stunning to witness and the performers all deserve immense credit, so seamless is the line between computer-generated images and flesh and blood. Their mannerisms and expressions are incredible, from the vengeful sneer of lead rabble-rouser Koba (Toby Kebbell) to the uncertainty of Caesar’s rebellious son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). Most impressive of all, however, are the eyes; through them, we see an astonishing expressiveness hitherto unseen in the history of CG.
To crown this achievement we have the maestro of motion-capture himself as Caesar: Andy Serkis. Serkis is no stranger to mesmerising performances and his turn as Caesar is no exception. Every time he’s onscreen – thankfully very often – he’s magnetic, commanding the audience’s attention with every gesture, every facial movement, every grunt and snarl.
The man’s a marvel and, as the lead character, he is without question the beating heart of the film. He lends Caesar the gravitas and poise required of a wise leader; just as the howling apes fall silent by a simple sweep of his hand, so too does the audience, hanging on his every move. The supporting ape cast give great performances too but this is Serkis’ domain, through and through.
It’s just a shame that the human side of things is so sparse. The Carver (Kirk Acevedo) character in particular suffers the most from this underdevelopment, being every twitchy, trigger-happy hothead you’ve ever seen in a film. He’s so unsuited to the task of human-ape diplomacy there has to be a clumsily-exposited and entirely artificial reason for him to accompany Clarke and co.
Oldman’s character receives little better treatment but he is at least afforded a poignant moment later on. The fact of the matter is the apes are far more engaging and emotive than their human counterparts, even when they’re not particularly rounded characters in their own right.
Perhaps the greatest marvel of Dawn is just how straight-faced it is. There’s none of the groan-inducing callbacks that hampered Rise, for instance. In the hands of a lesser director the film might easily have spluttered into camp absurdity but Reeves exerts an authoritative rein on the franchise.
When this kind of premise is rendered with the total absence of monkeying around (with one notable, albeit shocking exception), you know you have a team treating its subject with respect. Dawn overcomes its script and character problems by actually caring about the themes it explores; for a $170 million summer blockbuster, that’s a triumph in and of itself. Just don’t bother watching it in 3D – you’re paying extra money to watch a 2D film with sunglasses on.