Dawn of the Planet of the Apes *** (out of five)
I now have a fresh concern: that my infant daughter, when she’s old enough to pick her own video content, will watch the first two episodes of this new Planet of the Apes franchise in the wrong order. Being a smart little girl, she will naturally watch the apes enjoy their Dawn and then their Rise, and, sacré bleu! “Daaaddy!”
Even though they got the names wrong, this franchise, spearheaded by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (who wrote both Rise of the Planet of the Apes and this new Dawn) is getting many things right. Continuing to exist peacefully in the same cannon as the films started in 1968 (these films are prequels to those films, currently explaining how apes got smart and took over the planet, before Chuck Heston came back here and got entangled with them), Rise and Dawn, like the earlier films, have enjoyably different vibes, adding to the series’ epic-story feel.
The first was intimate, focusing on one ape – Andy Serkis’ Caesar – and his development under the caring gaze of human Will (James Franco). There were more humans than apes and the world was as we know it. This time, everything is different. Caesar leads a forest-dwelling tribe of hundreds of “smart” apes and the human race is almost entirely wiped out (by the disease launched at the end of the first film). No human characters from the first film remain, and many, if not most, of the scenes are simply between apes, speaking in their own language, and subtitled for us.
This stylistic shift is true to the series. Planet of the Apes (1968) was a cool, heady mind trip with a human lead (Heston) and a bunch of apes. There were ironic reversals of power, intriguing philosophical discussions, growing empathetic feelings, and, of course, there was one of the Great Reveals in all cinema at the end. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) went underground, had some new humans, and added mutated humans to the mix. Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes all continued to spin the story in different directions, with different settings and different ape / human ratios; each had its own vibe. This is one of the things that set it apart from other franchises, which tended to repeat themselves (and still do). It is was of the very cool things about Planet of the Apes.
So Dawn is doing things right by having an ape-centred story, and having Casear as the lead (Andy Serkis is first billed). There are a group of humans – survivors holed up in an area of San Fransisco, on the outskirts of which the apes live – and the story involves the two groups meeting and trying to decide whether to trust each other enough to co-exist. Our main human is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), and Gary Oldman, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee are also around.
The film’s problem – and it’s not a small one – is that it’s deeply predictable. Caesar and Malcolm are set up as good guys who want to make the whole ape / human thing work, and so, once we see a couple of apes on the one hand and a couple of humans on the other who are less willing to buy into the notion of happy coexistence, we know what’s coming, and it does. Of course the whole thing is a metaphor for race relations, and so it should be, as it always has been.
Story aside, however, the execution is a marvel to behold. Getting a hundred apes to all look and perform as brilliantly as Caesar did in the previous film must have been prohibitively expensive, time-consuming and perhaps still simply technically unachievable, so the apes, when seen collectively (most of the time – usually the screen is filled with apes) look a little more “motion capture” and a little less real than before. This doesn’t matter. They still look freakin’ awesome, and the film simply has a slightly more storybook or animated quality. Who cares? The 1968 apes were obviously dudes in suits and they looked sweet. The forest village the apes have created is a masterpiece of production design, and the camerawork, the forest, the village and the apes (and, at night, a series of gorgeous fire pits) all combine to create a dazzling spectacle that, essentially, is unprecedented. Jean-Jacques Annaud (Quest for Fire, 1981) is gonna be blown away.
Best of all, the film’s unique – and often strange – quality simply adds to the potency of the franchise, both existing and still to come. It doesn’t matter that it’s not perfect, it matters that it’s got integrity, and it certainly does. It’s bold and quirky. My daughter, once she’s old enough to be into all these apes, will be able to say, of this one, “the one where the apes besiege San Francisco” or “the one with the fire-camps” or “the one with Gary Oldman”, just as we can say of the ’68-’73 series, “the one with the mutants”, “the one where the apes go back in time” or “the one with the big battle between the apes”. It’s thrilling to watch this always intriguing series continue, in very good hands.
Incidentally, the 2001 Planet of the Apes, directed by Tim Burton, was a remake of the ’68 film, is not part of the series, and best forgotten.