On the Silver Screen – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
apes on horsedMatt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the eagerly anticipated sequel to Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 prequel/reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes and chronicles the continuation of the society of hyper intelligent apes asserting their dominance over planet Earth following the near extinction of humanity.
Picking up several years after the events of the first film, the Simian Flu has wiped out most of the human race except from a relatively small number who are genetically immune and the Apes are thriving. They’ve built an organised society, elaborate homes and started raising families while the humans struggle to survive day to day with continually dwindling resources. As the film opens we are shown a snapshot of ape society as they hunt for food; there’s something eerily human about the way they conduct this with the wearing of warpaint, use of spears and riding of horses really putting across just how much this society has evolved over the years. They use sign language to communicate which makes a lot of sense given that they shouldn’t really be able to talk and their agility gives them a unique advantage. In short it was a really effective opening that set the tone and focus of the film.
When humans accidentally stumble on the apes -or maybe the apes stumble across them- things change for both factions, each faction sees the other as a major threat and there’s rampant mistrust throughout. The human faction is running out of supplies and seeks to reactivate a dam near the ape colony to restore power to their settlement. Naturally, the apes are none too happy with letting humans near them given the history and the horror stories they’ve being told. Human nature being what it is, violent measures are immediately discussed but it’s up to Malcolm (Jason Clarke) to extend the apes an olive branch and try to reach some sort of agreement that will suit both factions.
The Ape society is led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) who was the one who started this society, he is shown immediately to be a capable and intelligent leader with lots of compassion. Serkis completely nails this role in every way; he’s indisputably the master of motion capture given that he’s used this growing technology in performances a number of times now and this mastery really helps him to bring Caesar to life. Everything from the facial expressions to the subtle movements make this character staggeringly realistic. The fantastic CGI work only compliments this but Serkis’ performance is really what sells it. Caesar has the benefit of witnessing lots of human kindness in the past and sees the potential that the humans have to rise above their violent urges but this film is about him learning how imperfect apes are and how violent they can be if they’re afraid. Basically Caesar’s lesson in this film is finding out just how similar apes and humans really are, something that shatters some of his preconceptions and causes him to see the world differently.
Malcolm is the avatar for the good in humanity, he shows Caesar and the other apes nothing but sincerity and kindness throughout the narrative with his girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell) and son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) show Caesar that he’s not the exception. Naturally there are elements that cause Caesar to have doubts but the film builds up a trust between these two characters organically. I liked how Clarke played the character with constant apprehension as he wasn’t sure if this uneasy truce would fall apart.
Gary Oldman’s appearance is brief but he plays a nicely complex character who is likeable one minute and violently unsympathetic the next. There was a nice moment where he gets to reconnect with his past that was really powerful so what we see of him feels real. The rest of the human characters don’t have an awful lot to do beyond Ellie helping Caesar’s sick wife and Alexander befriending Maurice. There’s also the humans who help fuel the mistrust but they’re treated more as plot conveniences than characters.
Toby Kebbell’s Koba was really good, he’s sort of the anti Caesar who only knows brutal treatment from the humans and cannot bring himself to trust them at all, no matter how much evidence he’s shown of their good natures. He is the one who disagrees with Caesar when he shows the humans friendship and compassion and takes drastic measures to convince the apes to come round to his way of thinking. His performance was less nuanced than Serkis’ but he did a fantastic job all the same.
Ultimately, this film features an ape on human conflict featuring apes on horses wielding machine guns, the image is as cool as it sounds and is visually stunning to look at. The sheer number of apes on screen with realistic movements made possible by large scale motion capture is nothing short of remarkable. As an audience we see the ugly side of both factions giving the story a multi faceted feel, there’s no simple good or bad as even the humans and apes who do bad things seem to do them for reasons that make sense given the circumstances. This all gives the film a rich texture that makes it tough to root for any one side, instead I felt horrified by all the senseless violence going on and I feel that was the intention so nice work, Matt Reeves and crew for accomplishing that.
The narrative focus leans heavily towards the apes which I really enjoyed, making the human characters lesser players in the story was a good move since this is about the apes becoming the society that features in the Charlton Heston original. The story was well told and didn’t overstay its welcome in terms of run time which was great. The only issue I had was that the ending didn’t quite sit well for me, perhaps when you see it you’ll understand what I mean but I felt more could have been done there. I also found the apes talking English to sound quite awkward which was probably the intention but I found it distracting whenever it happened.
Tonally, the film is very bleak and serious throughout. There’s very little in the way of laughs here but the subject matter doesn’t really lend itself to them. I liked that there was no comedy shoehorned in and that the film takes itself deadly seriously. There is an undercurrent of hope in places but for the most part the tone remains somber.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Overall, an excellent movie with a well executed story, fantastic visuals and performances. This film was layered in terms of characterisation and story as well as building a bleak and desperate world for both factions. As a franchise this has so much potential to continue to build and be great and I’m excited to see what will come next here.