The biggest box office surprise of the summer of 2011 was the reboot of a 43-year old franchise, Planet of the Apes. Following Tim Burton’s disappointing attempt in 2001, I didn’t hold much hope for a new movie (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), particularly since the cast was led by James Franco. But screenwriters Rick Jaffa (The Relic) and Amanda Silver (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The Relic) and director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist) delivered a surprisingly creative and thoughtful summer tent pole that ultimately earned double the cost to make it in the United States and quadruple the cost worldwide.
Because of this fact alone, my expectations were already high for the next chapter, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Adding to the anticipation, try as I might, I couldn’t avoid bits and pieces here and there that indicated Dawn was going to be fantastic… Best movie of the summer! The movie that’s going to save the summer box office! 94% approval on Rotten Tomatoes = “certified fresh”! When will I learn that I should just boycott Facebook and Twitter, not read email and turn off the TV before a big movie is released? Cumulatively, they just create unrealistic expectations and, sure enough, I ended up a little disappointed by the movie.
For a lifetime Planet of the Apes fan like me, the most brilliant thing about Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the point in the timeline the creators chose to reboot. Instead of the same story of astronauts crash-landing on a terrifying planet ruled by talking apes, where humans are pets or prisoners (like Burton did), Jaffa, Silver and Wyatt began their story in the present, focusing on how such a planet might come to exist. Rooted in reality with an emotional hook (a possible cure for Alzheimer’s), Rise barely hinted at the war between ape and man that was the underlying theme of most of the previous movies, television series and comic book fiction.
At the same time, it laid ground for a future timeline. During Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a mission to Mars was lost in space. It was barely a subplot, but news and headlines about it were sprinkled throughout the movie. The name of the ship was “Icarus”, the same as the ship in which Charlton Heston crashed in the original Planet of the Apes! The point is, Rise of the Planet of the Apes expertly managed a completely fresh reboot while paying faithful homage to the source material. Simultaneously, it weaved threads that could take the future of the franchise in nearly any direction.
The direction of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is to continue the story from where Rise of the Planet of the Apes ended. Well, it’s ten years later, but the “Simian Flu”, which was another subplot from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, has by now extinguished most of mankind. Caesar and his ape friends have built a community in the California Redwoods to which they previously escaped. Older and wiser, Caesar now has a son and we witness the birth of his second. He regularly seeks council from the orangutan, Maurice (a nod to Maurice Evans, who played Dr. Zaius in the original movie) and the scarred chimpanzee, Koba.
What happens to their idyllic life when the apes are exposed to a handful of surviving humans for the first time in ten years? Caesar would like to maintain the peace for as long as he can, but Koba wants a preemptive strike to prevent their possible annihilation. Blue Eyes, Casesar’s son, is caught in the middle. Whom can anyone trust? And that’s the underlying theme of this movie: trust. Can the apes trust humans? Can the humans trust apes? Can the apes trust each other? Can the humans trust each other? Whom can Blue Eyes trust? At times, the lesson is a little heavy-handed, but in some combinations, it’s effective.
Other than this inconsistency, the screenplay for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is solid. Written again by Jaffa and Silver, with help from Mark Bomback (The Wolverine), there are nice ties to Rise of the Planet of the Apes with no glaring plot holes. However, I managed to nitpick a couple of things. For example, news that civilized apes live in the woods seems to surprise the humans. I know it’s been ten years, but the movie begins with news reports of their standoff on the Golden Gate Bridge. Where were these humans during that time? Were they not aware of what seems to have been a national event?
Directing this time is Matt Reeves, a member of the J.J. Abrams school of filmmaking who is a rising star in the genre after giving us two movies I loved, Cloverfield and Let Me In. He keeps the action coming, but there are moments of drama that sometimes bring the proceedings to a near-halt. Normally, I would find it to be an even mix, but for some reason, the quiet moments dragged on just a little too long for me and I began to get antsy. Maybe I was just tired at the end of a long week, but the fact is I was not mesmerized throughout the entirety of the movie like I hoped to be.
What propels the movie toward excellence, though, is the ape special effects. It’s amazing how much they have improved in even the three years since Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Much has been made about the motion-capture process used with Andy Serkis, who even receives top billing in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes over Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman and Keri Russell. It’s hard to tell where Serkis stops and Caesar starts, but whoever does the eyes is amazing! I think his ape emotion outshines that of the humans. It’s understood by now that the body movements and gestures are both realistic and imaginative.
But every ape is individually and equally amazing. The only time something didn’t look entirely realistic to me was one scene where Caesar’s fur was blowing in the wind. Swinging through the trees, climbing towers, handling guns for the first time… it all looks just like it would really be if apes were evolving. The best example is when apes ride horses. As silly as the idea is, it looks natural as can be. That’s because they don’t try to straddle the horses like humans would. They instead ride crouched down on their backs, waving their arms wildly.
In fact, the only time I watched a scene and stopped to wonder how they did it was a scene filled with humans. When a large group of survivors gather to hear their leader (Oldman) tell them what to do, I thought, “hmmm… did they get a bunch of extras, or were the people created with CGI, also?” The only time what I was sure was CGI bothered me was near the end with the obligatory explosion that every summer movie must have. The resulting destruction looked a little fake to me. But it was mercifully short. The point is that the apes’ motion-capture and CGI effects are simply spectacular and the best thing about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
The bottom line, though, is that I did not experience the joy and wonder in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that I felt when watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes, even during subsequent viewings of Rise. It’s good and I recommend that everyone see it, but I just didn’t like it as much as the first one. With news that a third movie has already been announced, I view the series as a true trilogy. Collectively, I imagine they’ll compose the true origin of a planet of apes. Rise explained how it started. Dawn relays the first conflict between humans and apes. And, if the end of Dawn is any indication, the next movie will be all-out war. I already can’t wait!