The main point though is that this reboot or whatever of the Planet of the Apes series has been very successful. I had a dim view of the first film, considering it to be very uneven thanks to James Franco and a few odd story decisions, but mostly James Franco. Really though the new-ish franchise was just beginning, it didn't quite know what it was going to be yet. The tone was off. The things that worked, such as Andy Serkis as Caesar, were matched by things that didn't work, such as twerpy Tom Felton sacrilegiously stealing Charlton Heston's iconic lines from the 1968 original. Importantly though, and I admit, I didn't give the movie enough credit for this back in the original review, it did have its own story to tell entirely unique to itself. It is remake/reboot/whatever that is justifiable in its existence. And it opened the door for sequels to expand upon that narrative.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is probably the most perfectly improved sequel that has ever come along. It recognized the faults of the (kinda) first one, and logically moving forward in the story, fixed them, making for one of the best movies of 2014 so far. James Franco's character is out, having been wiped out by the 'Simian Flu', a super virus he himself created while trying to create a cure for Alzheimer's in the first movie**. In his place the hero has been made none other than Caesar himself. The once lonely hyper-intelligent Ape now is the ruler of an Ape civilization in the redwood forests north of San Francisco. The conflict this time comes from the first contact between this rising race of Apes and the last remnants of human kind, desperately holding onto what remains of the world they once ruled. The new story is an intense study on a clash of cultures, nearly perfect in its tone and completing its aims flawlessly. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a film so well-made it retroactively changes my opinion on the first one - go watch that, if only to be set up properly for this installment.
I'll begin by addressing a point that I think needs to be made: Andy Serkis really needs an Academy Award already. I'm sure Academy conservatives will think that because his performance is partially the result of special effects he isn't putting in the same effort as live actors. The Academy has never nominated an animated performance, it probably will not consider Andy Serkis come Award Season, but they are wrong. Serkis has been the king of motion capture characters for over a decade now, beginning with his most famous character, Gollum, where he put in the best performance of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Caesar here is miles away from that devious little green monster begging loudly for "the precious". He's a veteran leader, wise to the dangers of humanity, and strikingly intense in every scene. You can see instantly how the charisma of this figure could bring forth a planet where Apes evolved from men. The Ape King doesn't have much spoken dialog - he can talk but only with apparent difficulty, but his brief expressions tell far more than entire Shakespearean monologues. This is the best performance I've seen in all of 2014. If nobody else is going to give Andy Serkis his due, I will. He is one of the best actors working today, give him a shiny object to celebrate this fact.
|Can you even tell that this is all CG wizardry? That's how good the effects are now.|
The plot of "Dawn" will probably not surprise you with its twists and turns. A small human community led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), has taken residence within a FEMA supply center in the ruins of San Francisco. However their fuel is running low and they need a hydroelectric dam to get their power back on to make contact with other survivors. One member of this society, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) makes first contact with the Ape community, who happen to be living just besides the dam the humans need. Immediately tensions run high, the Apes fear the humans and their guns, and the humans cannot believe the sight of the animals that "cause" the plague that nearly wiped out our species and worse, that they have begun to talk. Malcolm and Caesar attempt to work out a peaceful negotiation for the two races, but bellicose elements within both camps make peace impossible. We aren't going to get a movie where the humans and the Apes will sing Kumbaya, we know this series needs to end with this planet going Ape and the Statue of Liberty getting buried in the sand.
|Tragically the horses have sided with the Apes.|
One of the more brilliant scenes in "Dawn" is the huge ridiculous battle scene that every summer blockbuster must have by law of nature. Director Matt Reeves keeps the tone sombre and miserable. This is no indulgence in action porn for the sake of the audience's basest instincts. You don't feel as though this is a grand triumph or even a very fun action scene - it's repulsive naked violence for no greater purpose of any kind. As Apes are set on fire and the humans huddle around in fear for their lives, it's almost like Reeves is poking you right in the face. "This is what you wanted, right? This is what you paid for, right? Have it. Feast on the barbarity, suckers." "Dawn" has a more conventional final climatic fight towards the end, but by then it is already too late for peace.
|Oh, just kiss already, you big lugs!|
To conclude, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is easily the best of the Hollywood blockbuster scene that has come out in quite awhile. It is much bolder than the usual popcorn chugging fair, creating a stirring story of tragedy and the inevitable losses of history. Even I am shocked by how much I found myself loving this movie, a few watch checks besides the point. This is probably the best Planet of the Apes movie that has ever been made, and an excellent sign for the future of this franchise. I want to see more of Caesar and his Ape-kind.
Only please come up with a more distinct title next time. I really don't want to have to review "Beginning of the Planet of the Apes" in 2016.
* The original Planet of the Apes franchise actually turned out to be a continuous time loop, with the first two movies being the "end" and the next three being the "beginning". You'll have fans argue whether it's a true time loop or alternate dimensions, but history repeats either way so it doesn't matter. Starting from the earliest point chronologically it begins with some Future Apes going back in time and arriving in what was then the "modern" Earth of 1971. Then they escape from an evil circus owner and beget a race of Intelligent Apes who are oppressed by the humans thanks to some on-the-nose slavery parables (this was the gritty racially-charged Seventies after all). The apes rebel, conquer the humans, and then rule the planet after a ridiculously cheap-looking final battle. Which worked fine for the Apes and their Planet until spaceman Charlton Heston jumped into the future, landed on Earth, roared at the Statue of Liberty, and accidentally set off an underground nuclear bomb worshiped by a cult of humanoid mutants that obliterated the planet. (If that sounds silly, this was the very ridiculous Sixties after all.) Somehow this causes a time dimension which sends those original Future Apes back to 1971, continuing the loop endlessly.
So where do "Dawn" and "Rise" fit in? Who cares? Fox can make up anything they want to justify it.
However, what we can all agree on is that the 2001 Marky Mark/Tim Burton movie is total nonsense and can be safely forgotten. If you're wondering why that movie sucked, it was because this was the intellectually bankrupt early 2000s after all.
** Which makes him, what, the worst scientist ever? Even mad scientists don't usually create that kind of damage. But I did notice that none of the humans in this film had Alzheimer's, so maybe Dr. James Franco succeeded in the end.
*** It should really tell you just how iconic an experience like "The Last of Us" was now that every time I see a post-apocalyptic city I immediately think of Joel, Ellie, and subways full of Clickers. There was a scene in this movie where a character was trying to sneak through a ruined building to avoid Apes and I wanted to pull out my PS3 controlling and start throwing molotov cocktails. I love that game.