From its origins in Pierre Boulle’s Swiftian 1963 book La Planète des singesto this state-of-art 21st-century 3D-CG cinema outing, the dark sarcastic Apes franchise has proved both buoyant and flexible. Born in the middle of the social upheavals of the late 60s and early 70s, the first cycle of five films (Planet, Beneath, Escape, Conquest and Battle) fully mentioned all the intense political topics of the day; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with nuclear destruction, racism, vivisection, apartheid, slavery, warfare versus diplomacy, rebellion and, eventually, compromise.
Tim Burton’s modish but blank 2001 Planet remake somehow lost the thematic idea; advanced prosthetics allowed the ape actors to move their mouths only to realize that they had little to say. British director Rupert Wyatt only got things back on the right track with his 2011 reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, using mesmerizing performance-capture technology in service of a decent script (by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) that connected the political clout of Conquest with the Boulle’s source animal-rights concept. In the original franchise, a time-travel loop was necessitated to teach apes to say “No”; in Rise, bio-altered science did the thing, the search for a cure for Alzheimer’s accidentally becoming the catalyst for a simian rise.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes follows the story 10 years after the end of Rise, with Caesar (a talented Andy Serkis, once again filmed by the pros at Weta Digital) and his fellows creating a community in Muir Woods after the ravaging of San Francisco. Believing the humankinds have died out, the 2,000-odd gorillas, chimpanzees and orang-utans lead a calm and flourishing existence until encountering with a group of virus-resistant survivors exacerbate trigger-happy disaster. Facing ancient nemesis, both men and monkeys are torn between the desire to cooperate and the urge to destroy, the fears of war buzzing forebodingly in the background.
Carefully balancing its compassions, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes created reflect-image figures on both sides: in the peace camp, Caesar, Cornelia (Judy Greer) and disturbed son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) are matched by neo-nuclear human family unit Malcolm (Jason Clarke), Ellie (Keri Russell) and Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee); in the war room, Gary Oldman’s militaristic Dreyfus is the human counterpart for raged bonobo Koba (Toby Kebbell).
While Serkis is still the king of the cinematic swingers (his Kong and Caesar both rule), Kebbell grants him a run for his money as the scarred survivor of an experimentation lab, menacing to steal the show from the maestro as his character rises a devious revolution against his lord and master. And when the battles arrive, Cloverfield director Matt Reeves handles the action scenes with complete confidence, keeping his eye on character even as great spectacle predominates – the key to maintaining an element of bewildering danger.
Filmed mostly on location in the forests of Vancouver, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes fully takes advantages of capturing the actors’ performances in the wild. While the “native 3D” rests a take-it-or-leave-it addition, the organic view of the digitalized character recreation is outstanding, using the advanced technology to tell the story from the perspective of the apes that remain the initial focus of the narrative. Keep in mind, it took the original franchise three movies before we really started to see the world through other than human’s point of view.
This latest reboot, which quotes directly from Battle, revels in the chance to make the homo-sapiens the secondary species. The result comes as a cranked-up simian counterstroke to the French-Canadian film Quest for Fire, or an alternative-universe expansion of the “dawn of man” scene from A Space Odyssey by Kubrick in 2001, which went head-to-head with the original Planet of the Apes in 1968.
There are, of course, some flaws. The lack of decent female roles is triggering and I assume that some of the wishy-washy visual elements will not age well; similar to all films created by cutting-edge technology, the threat of accelerated obsolescence is very real.
There’s also an over-reliance on the spoken word; while Mark Bomback (who rewrote Jaffa and Silver’s script after Wyatt left) says to have avoid the “temptation to just give the apes pages and pages of dialogue”, there’s a specific loss of nerve in the variation from persuasive simian sign language to more dramatic chimp wordiness. The influence of Caesar’s original “No!” is unavoidable reduced as single words to sort-of speeches.
What regains Dawn of the Planet of the Apes all is the feeling that the filmmakers take their characters seriously and imagine the audience to be as sensitive as their simian screen counterparts. While Michael Bay’s dreadful Transformer series continuously treat everyone like a “damn dirty ape”, Reeves, Serkis and co seem proud to expect more from their audience, rising to the challenges of blockbuster entertainment. Good for them.