It is a red dawn. Strange things await us by the eaves of the forest. Good or evil, I do not know; but we are called.
— Legolas, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers
Strange things, indeed, await in the forest in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Well, if you want to call sentient, self-sufficient, strong chimpanzees and orangutans capable of speech and coherent thought strange. In the ten years that have passed in the timeline since the events of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, human life has ground to a halt, with only 1 in 500 people being biologically immune to a laboratory-created virus gone completely out of control (it was supposed to have cured Alzheimer’s Disease originally, but it grew into something much worse). Cities lie in overgrown ruin, and now humans and apes alike are living in secluded colonies, with the constant threat of violence hanging over their heads.
This is where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves and writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver start this latest foray into human/ape relations. While Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a good reboot of a film series that started in 1968, it serves merely as an establishing shot to this astonishing follow-up. Here, we find the apes have living in quiet seclusion in their Ewok-like tree houses, venturing out to hunt for food and leaving the human world to its own devices. But when a human team led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) intent on solving San Francisco’s dwindling energy problem discovers the apes’ habitat, it doesn’t take long for relationships to turn sour, alliances to be formed, and intentions to be misinterpreted. Right away, we’re treated to a dose of human stupidity, as Malcolm’s team member Carver (Kirk Acevedo) shoots and wounds an unarmed ape upon encountering it.
Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis, reprising his role from the 2011 film), who still thinks humans and apes can live in the same world, helps Malcolm and his team with their power problem, while others peripheral to this situation prefer more extreme, drastic measures. Ape usurper Koba (Toby Kebbell) and the leader of the human colony, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) don’t think that there is a middle ground, separately believing only in scorching the earth for the opposition and leaving nothing to chance.
There’s a lot to take in here, both at face value and as social commentary on our current times. On one hand, you have a perfectly balanced summer action movie that transcends the label “summer action movie.” The script never condescends to the audience; instead, it wills them to engage with the movie. For the first ten or fifteen minutes, dialogue is shown in subtitles as the apes use hand motions to converse, a risky move that I cannot remember another big summer film attempting. However, it serves not to alienate, but to get us involved with the apes and their personalities. Those personalities are even more enhanced by their computer-animated faces. Motion capture has come a long way, even from the groundbreaking effects shown in the 2011 reboot; here, the apes have extremely emotive, human expressions, running the gamut from quiet contemplation to full-bore rage. Various apes are identified by their battle scars, engaging the audience on another level without having the apes constantly screaming names for your orientation.
For the first time in a long time, we have a totally CGI-driven film that 1) didn’t bore me or 2) anger me with the amount of CGI-overload. There are no flashy, gimmicky effects thrown at us – instead, computer magic (and its natively-shot 3D) is used to tell the story effectively and thoroughly, and that’s where a lot of my appreciation of this movie lies. This could easily have been a simple spectacle of Michael Bay-like proportions, but by keeping us focused on the story and letting the action and characterizations evolve gradually and organically (instead of being forced into action sequences surrounded by meaningless dialogue), Reeves succeeds in making Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the exact opposite of “throwaway.” Also of note: this is the first Apes film in the series’ 46-year history to be shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio; the rest were all scope-framed at a wider 2.35:1. In doing this, Reeves highlights the curiously open claustrophobia of both camps: no matter how desolate and uninhabited it might look, it’s not exactly what the Dixie Chicks would call “Wide Open Spaces.”
On the other hand, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes could be seen as a solid commentary on how politically divided the United States has become. Both sides of our political spectrum are fast devolving into true stupidity, looking to further their own gains and power instead of finding a way to work together and coexist. Middle grounds don’t exist, and the more extreme of the two sides will always find a larger voice; as Caesar so wearily notes in the last act, “Apes follow strength,” no matter who may have been the wiser leader before. Even Dreyfus, a seemingly level-headed human leader, doesn’t trust that Malcolm will get things done his way, resorting to preparing weapons for war against the apes. It’s madness on both sides, with hope for a better life kept alive only by Caesar, his devoted ape followers, and Malcolm’s small group.
One of my favorite sequences involves point-of-view shot from a tank turret; it’s a rather effective scene, wondrous in its simplicity and devastating in its impact. This shot, to me, sums up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as best as possible: it’s a sad day when we have to start fighting and killing ourselves in order to make a statement. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a terrific film that works on so many different levels. It’s as if the filmmakers threw away all the rules about summer movies being dumb, loud, flashy, mind-numbing action pieces and rewrote them by being smart, engaging, and truly revolutionary.
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Amanda Silver, Andy Serkis, Chernin Entertainment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Dune Entertainment, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Kirk Acevedo, Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves, Michael Giacchino, Movie Review, Rick Jaffa, sequel, Toby Kebbell, Twentieth Century Fox