Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox, PG-13)

dawnapes sqIt’s probably the most famously intellectual sci-fi series next to Star Trek, and unlike that series of reboots, the recent Apes films have stayed true to their roots.

 

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There are two fantastic sci-fi action films playing in theaters right now. The first is Edge of Tomorrow, which was released about a month ago, and despite its bland, overly grim marketing, has managed to stick around due to good word of mouth. It’s a smart, funny, character-driven film with a fresh concept. The second film is Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer, which snuck into theaters over the Fourth of July weekend. It’s brilliant and weird and exciting, and maintains its director’s uniquely foreign voice. In some ways, just getting these films at all is a victory for discerning genre fans. On the other hand, the combined total domestic gross of both films is lower than what Trans4mers made in its opening weekend. But now we have a third film, a new champion, one which is every bit as intelligent and special as the other two, but which also has the potential to be an enormous hit.

I love the Planet of the Apes franchise. It’s probably the most famously intellectual sci-fi series next to Star Trek, and unlike that series of reboots, the recent Apes films have stayed true to their roots. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was my favorite film of 2011, and while it wasn’t perfect, the brilliant (ape) stuff was so brilliant it was easy for me to overlook the slightly less successful (human) stuff. It was a really smart reboot, more or less going back to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (the fourth of the original films and best of the sequels) as a starting point. That was a key decision made early on which helped that movie immensely. Another such decision was made with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and that decision was to set this film about ten years after the last one.

For those that don’t remember (or never saw; one of the unique things about Rise was that it featured a mid-credits scene which actually mattered), the last film ended with the deadly (to humans) virus spreading all over the world. In today’s culture of serialized filmmaking, it would be easy to imagine the sequel focusing on humans fighting the virus while apes slowly gain in intelligence. That movie could have been good, but it most likely would have been this franchise’s Quantum of Solace, an entry that just wastes time dragging the reboot out across an extra film, when really the first one did everything it needed to do. As it is, we get the equivalent of that film as a montage in the beginning, which serves to catch us up on everything that has happened to humanity in the intervening decade. Then we leave humanity for a good twenty minutes or so to catch up with the characters that really matter.

We see that Caesar (again played by Andy Serkis, who again will not get an Oscar for one of the most subtle, moving performances of the decade) has amassed even more ape followers and they have built a small village in the redwoods across the bridge from San Francisco. They have developed significantly, using tools, and communicating in a mixture of sign language and spoken English. Caesar has a son who is in the chimp equivalent of his awkward teen years, and his wife (for lack of a better word) has just given birth to another child. He sometimes reminisces about his human family, but the apes assume that all humans have died out by this point.

They are wrong. A small community of humans with an immunity to the virus have built a stronghold in San Francisco, and survived by using gas generators for power. But now their fuel is running out and they want to get power by rerouting it from a dam, which is on the ape side of the bridge. The leader of the group in charge of this project is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), and he meets with Caesar to beg for cooperation. Caesar wants peace and agrees to let them do their work. And then things go horribly wrong.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a movie about how and why wars get started. Both sides want to live in peace, but both sides are afraid, and when a few rotten eggs on both sides play into that fear, things get out of hand. And of course, the presence of guns doesn’t help either. There is plenty of spectacle here, but it is not an action movie. The action takes a long time to get started, and when it does, it’s not fun and exciting, it’s dark and horrible. This is a movie about characters and debates, and that is what makes it unique.

I will say with 100% confidence that Caesar is the greatest CG character ever put to film. So much is told to us in silence, in long close-ups on his face where we just watch him think. It’s a brilliant performance by Serkis. It’s brilliant animation by the effects team. It’s brilliant writing by Rick Joffa and Amanda Silver, who wrote the last film, as well as Mark Bomback, who joins them for this one. On the ape side, we also have Toby Kebbell’s Koba, who is a fantastic antagonist. Whereas Caesar has a built-in love for humans, Koba has only ever seen their darker side, and so he argues that the apes should attack the humans while they are weak. Koba was set up in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but he’s a real character with a real arc here. Like most good villains, he’s trying to do the right thing, and his transformation from Caesar’s trusted friend to Caesar’s main rival is a totally believable one. On the human side, Jason Clarke does very good work as Malcolm. He’s an actor who always stands out to me, even in an ensemble as strong as Zero Dark Thirty. He’s the closest thing we have to a human lead in this film, and his relationship with Caesar is moving and believable.

The question on my mind is whether or not this is better than Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I have to compare this to another reboot and its sequel, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. I know Dark Knight is the default choice as best, but I truly believe that Batman Begins is just as good. I get different things out of them. Dark Knight doesn’t have the revelatory experience of seeing Bruce Wayne become Batman, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t give me the same joy I get from watching Caesar come into his own as a leader. I also admire the efficiency of Rise. Director Rupert Wyatt spent a mere 100 minutes telling us Caesar’s entire life story, from birth, through adolescence, to becoming an outcast, to becoming accepted by his own kind, and then to becoming the powerful figure he is in this film. Matt Reeves is less interested in efficiency, and more interested in letting these ideas breathe. There’s a sense of grandeur to this film that was lacking in its predecessor, and it also forgoes some of the sillier aspects of that film. Ultimately, there’s no need to choose. I love both of them with all of my heart, and even if you thought Rise was merely “better than expected,” you will probably find a lot to love about Dawn. We live in a world where summer blockbusters all feel the same. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is different. Imagine a world where this film outgrosses Trans4mers. It’s a battle of good vs. evil, and we have the power to choose who wins. Hail Caesar. | Sean Lass

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