Scott F. Evans
How many sequels actually improve upon the original? The list is short. The Godfather: Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and this year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes must now be included on that list. It’s also, thus far, the best film of the summer.
The Apes series has always had its extreme highs and lows. 1968’s original Planet of the Apes is still the king of the empire. It was a massive critical and financial success and still holds up today almost fifty years later. A mirror of the era, it’s the perfect example of social commentary told through the prism of science fiction. But in a series of bizarre decisions, Twentieth Century Fox chose to crank out each successive sequel quickly and cheaply with varying, results. The second film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes was a mess, succumbing to budget restraints, and star demands. Escape from the Planet of the Apes course corrected and is considered the second best of the original series. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes did extremely well amongst urban audiences who identified with the slave rebellion theme of the picture. It’s a good movie and my second favorite but you can really see the effect the lower budget has on the final product. Battle for the Planet of the Apes is so cheap and rushed it looks like a TV show. So, despite their efforts to seemingly kill the franchise, it still spawned both a live action and animated TV series and was the prototype for merchandising tie-ins. In 2001 Fox went back to the well, attempting a remake of the original with Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes. Stripped of its social and political commentary, it’s nothing more than a goofy exercise in top notch practical makeup effects, chintzy looking set designs, and poor casting choices. Despite that film’s financial success, due more to the Burton brand name than cinematic quality, Fox wisely abandoned plans for new sequels. In 2011, they gave it another shot with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Score one for the marketing execs running studios these days. They turned over the franchise to creators who were actually invested in making a solid film instead of a cynical cash grab or gimmicky one-off. Instead of attempting to reboot the franchise by remaking the ’68 original, Rise wisely chose to tackle 1972’s Conquest. These are the remakes/reboots/re-imaginings that really work the best. Films that failed to land for whatever reason, be it budget or story, are ripe for revisits. It was an almost perfect approach to reinvigorating a dead franchise. By jettisoning the original’s problematic time travel element, they started fresh with a more logical beginning of mankind’s downfall and ape’s ascension.
Now with the excellent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we have a pseudo remake of 1973’s Battle.
Caesar, once again played by performance capture artist Andy Serkis, is back. Now an adult, father, and husband, he leads a large colony of intelligent apes residing in the Redwood forest outside of San Francisco. The apes live simply off the land in relative peace and harmony. They are advanced for simians but still quite primitive compared to what’s left of humanity. They have advanced enough to where they all communicate using sign language and a few have developed the power of speech. While the apes slowly progress, the surviving humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clark), and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), struggle to rebuild their society fortified inside the city’s limits. They’ve been able to hold on and even make some strides, but are now rapidly running out of fuel. The only energy source strong enough to satisfy their needs is the dam which is on ape territory. On an expedition to repair the dam, Malcolm’s small team encounters the apes and a misunderstanding leads to a shooting and the trouble begins.
One of the great things about Dawn is that although it’s a summer popcorn film, it dares to be mature enough to not be about simple “good guys versus bad guys”. Many of the actions can be seen as completely justifiable. The leaders (of man and apes) make sincere attempts to live and operate in harmony, but are betrayed by extremists in their groups. And even the extremists among them have sound reasons for mistrusting the other. The simplistic idea of absolute evil is refreshingly missing from this story.
Despite the film being mostly about CG enhanced apes, there are strong characters on display here. Dawn gets right in one film what The Transformers failed to do in four; create compelling non-human characters. Every moment Caesar is on screen is outstanding. He can be regal in front of his people and show sincere vulnerability in front of his family, particularly when dealing with Blue Eyes, his headstrong teenage son. Although it’s not necessary to view Rise first, Caesar’s character is informed by the events of the first film. They don’t just tell us he’s this great leader and compassionate father. They show us. Ceasar’s performance is nearly outdone by Koba, his second in command. The returning character from Rise almost steals the show out from under Ceasar. Koba may be one of the most complex antagonists we’ve seen in a while. A former lab experiment, his mistrust and outright hatred of humans is completely justified. Unlike Caesar, he’s only seen the worst aspects of men, so when he commits a manipulative act of violence, we get it.
In this movie, the story is everything. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a reported budget of around $170 million. While that’s huge, the filmmakers refuse to skimp on story and character, in exchange for spectacle. When the major battle happens at the climax, we actually give a shit about what happens because we’re invested in the characters. Other films released this summer have had nearly twice this one’s budget and fail on every level besides spectacle. With Dawn, every nickel is up there on the screen. The CG enhanced apes are seamless. You forget you’re watching motion captured performances. But it’s not flashy. There are no excessive explosions every ten minutes and no bloated star salaries eating up the production money. Matt Reeves direction is classic. There’s nice, steady camera work here. No played out handheld operating or jarring edits, even the action scenes have clarity.
My biggest compliment is, this film (along with Edge of Tomorrow) proves that summer genre films do not have to be stupid. It is actually possible to make popcorn movies that don’t require audiences to turn off their brains, and still deliver a spectacle that is blockbuster-worthy.
*In its opening weekend, Dawn took in $73,000,000 domestic and $30,400,000 foreign ($103,400,000 total)