DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
So I promised a full franchise retrospective. So I haven't given it to you yet. So I have a job, and that's how I keep a roof over our heads, baby. It's you and me and we're in this together. But before I break fully into a Bon Jovi song, this here's a draft of Part VIII of that series: Dawn is an eminently worthy sequel, but if this sounds less than entirely enthusiastic, it's because unlike its so-close-to-perfect predecessor, Dawn does have its problems—from its recombined DNA up.
Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver
With Andy Serkis (Caesar), Toby Kebbell (Koba), Karin Konoval (Maurice), and Jason Clarke (Malcolm) (he's the one who's just some guy)
Spoiler alert: moderate
We begin in the post-apocalyptic wilds outside what—for all intents and purposes—we can say used to be San Francisco. Ten years have gone since Caesar's father accidentally engineered the plague that gave other primates humanlike intellects while it gave human beings hemorrhages. Ten years have gone since that selfsame superintelligent chimpanzee unwittingly unleashed upon it humanity. Ten years have gone, and our numbers have been reduced to a infinitesimal fraction of what they once were.
The opening setpiece is a deer hunt in that renewed Californian rain forest, and I had planned on leading with the observation that chimps can't even eat meat, but it turns out I'm the dummy, as they can and they do so with relish. But I looked it up—just to make sure—and they still don't cry and, damn it, they still can't talk. ALZ-113 really needs a black box warning: May introduce traits calculated to increase an audience's empathy, while severely undermining what made these characters, these concepts, and these performances interesting in the first place.
Rise—which I assume you've seen, and there's little excuse for not watching one of 2011's best films when you've had three years to do it—certainly didn't mind testing the limits of its magical realism when it came to Caesar's voice. That expertly-played "NO!" was, unfortunately, supplemented with "Caesar... is... home," a line that not only would have raised fewer unwanted questions about Caesar's laryngeal construction at the very end of the movie if it had been performed in sign, but would have been more bittersweet still. It could have been quiet and inhuman as the days of humanity drew to their inevitable close; instead, they made sure the asses filling the cheap seats weren't left out.
Worse, I knew the deeper message Caesar's vocalization communicated: in the next film apes would be talking with abandon whether any given scene really needed it or not. And as it was prophesied, so it has come to pass. It's not as distracting as it could have been, but their guttural verbiage is far too ubiquitous for it to seem special anymore.
From a very close reading of the original texts, I understand that in Planet '68, and through that entire five-film series (and in Planet '00 too), the apes spoke. That series also had a time hole, a bomb that blew up the world, and a dystopian future where gorillas were waiters. You could call Rise the grim-and-gritty reboot—though in what respect it is truly grimmer than any of its predecessors, despite their excesses, I leave as an exercise for the reader—but whatever you want to call it, it was certainly a more grounded exploration of the premise. Rise gave us a planet where apes, if you're technical about it, did in fact evolve from apes.
If this sounds like the inarticulate sibilants of a science nerd just jealous of Caesar's superior diction, the problem is a deeper one. We all know that Andy Serkis can act in a conventional mode. But so could any old actor of basic competence. You hire Andy Serkis for the peerless naturalism he can generate within a motion-capture cage and for the Oscar-worthy performances he's always given beneath his CGI makeup. (It's true that you do not hire him so much for his backfiring self-aggrandizement at the expense of the hundreds of talented computer artists who've helped make him a household name.) But most importantly you hire Serkis for his silence. When you take that away, as Matt Reeves and his screenwriters have, you subvert your star, and sabotage the film your audience wanted to see and, I expect, the one you'd have wanted to make.
But we review the performance we have, not the one we wish we had, and of course Serkis remains wholly compelling even as he dwindles to a shadow of his career-best turn in Rise.
In case I haven't made it clear, I LIKE ANDY SERKIS A LOT.
Dawn's other men in CGI ape suits do an admirable job as well—and it is almost all men, which I suppose befits a chimpanzee-dominated alliance with gorillas and orangutans, though it'd be criminal not to mention that Karin Konoval has reprised her role as Maurice, and is great again, though she has much, much less to do. Amongst the non-Serkises, and maybe even including the one who is, Toby Kebbell is the standout. He replaces Chris Gordon in the role of Koba, once the victim of human experiments, now made Caesar's Brutus. (And I know you won't believe me, but I'd swear to any god you'd like that I didn't mean to do that.)
Et tu, Kobe?
You see, Dawn is an elemental story of ideology, prejudice, war, and realpolitik—"elemental" being the word I use when I sort-of mean "generic," but still wish to be mildly complimentary about it. It pits the heroes of Rise against the surviving humans, who—in theory—wish only to reactivate an abandoned hydroelectric dam that rests beyond the bounds of their tiny subsistence community. Of course, the humans in this science fiction movie are also largely murderous scum from a world that has no science fiction, and thus they have no idea at all how to handle the prospect of another sapient life form on their planet. The irony is that restoring power would have permitted them to sit down with the apes and watch a few choice episodes of Star Trek, solving all of their problems immediately, but to get there they have to go through Caesar's kingdom, and fear of the other erupts into violence on both sides. There is a depressing sense of fatalism to Dawn that is both a strength and, at two hours and change, often a weakness; in any case, it is never a matter of if war will break out, but when and how. Especially given that Caesar, despite his lingering affection for his father, has developed a thoroughly unromantic view of the human species as a whole.
That "how" is accomplished through action sequences of adequate construction, though they prove that Caesar, a figure of appeasement who does not want war, was nonetheless the vastly better warrior—compare Caesar's canny use of concealment and his three-dimensional thinking on the Golden Gate in Rise to Koba's frontal assault against a prepared position through a narrow street, and tell me which one is an incredible mistake even for an amateur tactician.
Someone didn't read up on his Crimean War.
Sure, on a purely visceral level the Battle of Carpenter Street works well enough, but I have to tell you that the long take of Koba from the turret of an AFV—the one that everybody has been raving about—has been abominably oversold. It's not that visually thrilling, anyway—it's Baby's First Children of Men—but mainly I was annoyed with it because it is a teeth-grindingly stupid scene in the first place, that only happens because the AFV's original human operators forgot to button-up in the midst of a fight with small-armed infantry who barely even know how to operate their assault rifles and have no way whatsoever of penetrating the vehicle unless you, you know, leave the fucking door open.
Koba's descent into supervillainy becomes entirely complete by the final hour, as well; and this is very unfortunate, since it guts the film at a thematic level and replaces it with a standard—I mean elemental—tale of primate original sin. You can read more about that in the Bible, but I was far more interested in the seeming turn from the Old Testament to the New when the struggle between he and Caesar still existed on a purely political level.
Ape does not kill ape? Koba failed biology class too, but that doesn't make him any less dangerous.
Koba, opposed to granting the humans passage to the dam from the start, has a freak-out when he confirms what everybody would seemingly already know—humans have guns and know how to use them—and attacks Dawn's human protagonist (a solid, if stolid, Jason Clarke), shrieking verbally (sigh) for Caesar to appear. Caesar does so, and while they each argue forcefully, it's Caesar who first resorts to the ancient chimpanzee method of settling disputes, not Koba. The apes, possessed now of ethical faculties advanced beyond that of merely submitting to the one with the most force, react with dumbfounded horror as Caesar beats his authority into Koba, and I imagined that I could see in their animated eyes a glimmer of moral resistance. Caesar's apes, I thought, had evolved to understand martyrdom—and for more than a few minutes I thought I might be watching a brilliant movie. But then, a half hour later, Koba throws a kid ape off a balcony and hardly anybody cares, so I guess it really is just as simple as whoever can beat up the leader, gets to be the leader... at least till someone beats him up too. (The climax of Caesar and Koba's conflict, now made a naked contest for power with no ideological subtext at all, concludes in an equally prosaic manner, with nothing fascinatingly, untranslatably different about it. With a great deal of charity, I take that as its very point, but as a result it is not a terribly original or interesting one.)
The stinging posthumanity of Rise is missing along with its superior action set-pieces, then—as well as its more thrilling bits, for there is certainly no equivalent in Dawn to Rise's prison break. But then again, every Apes movie has been radically different from every other Apes movie, and this is as good a remake of Battle for the Planet of the Apes as could ever be reasonably expected by anyone with a functioning sense of aesthetics. Battle may be the only film in the whole series that outright sucks (yes, you heard me, and stay tuned), but Dawn elevates its material to, at least, watchable spectacle.
For watchable spectacle Dawn very much is, with excellent post-apocalyptic production design by James Chinlund that supposes an eschaton of ivy on one hand and a lovely Ewok village on the other, and creditable cinematography by Michael Seresin that manages a funereal cast without sacrificing the omnipresent green that's retaken the Earth. The CGI has improved marginally since 2011, though whether any given ape looks real is still a crapshoot. Maurice looks so good he could be an actual damned orangutan for all I could tell; Caesar always looks great, with Serkis wearing him like a perfectly expressive mask, but all the texture in the world won't make him look like a real chimp; Koba might look even better, but of course his villainous ugliness permits a greater verisimilitude; and then there are a lot of featured extra apes, like Caesar's son and Caesar's wife, who look like cartoons. Overall, though, it's abundantly fine work—and, great guns! I just remembered that the last action-heavy film Reeves directed was Cloverfield. So, people... learn?
Ultimately, I'd have to admit—grudgingly, for I wanted so badly to love Dawn—that all of that elementalism really does drain the film of its initial excitement. But Dawn is not bereft of finer points beyond its well-attested imagery. My favorites—ironically, given that they were some of my least favorite in Rise—were its references to other films in the franchise. It accomplishes one of these by being subtle about it: Koba next to an American flag is not Reeves elbowing you in the ribs, asking "Remember the Statue of Liberty?", but you remember it all the same. The final shot, in perfect visual and thematic symmetry with the very first, recalls deliberately and vividly, but not pointlessly, the superb closing moments of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, when that Caesar realized he had unleashed something he could no longer control.
No, Dawn is not a great movie, but while you sit there, and the credits roll, you believe it might have been. And, whatever problems Dawn manifests, and they are many and serious, it is a successful film on its own terms.