The only major flaw with the otherwise excellent “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is that you have to wade through its 2011 predecessor to get there.
There was a moment early on in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes where an army of horse-ridin’ chimpanzees march through the ruins of San Francisco as a calculated show of power. It was a brilliantly composed shot, accompanied by a weird, madhouse soundtrack of discordant bells and flutes, “ape music” that would fit right into the beloved Charlton Heston classic. That’s the moment I went bananas for this movie (sorry). I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing and hearing; I have absolutely zero faith in big-budget hollywood. Review-wise, the best you’ll usually get from me is “it didn’t suck as much as it could have.” But this time I can just come right out and say it like a man: I f-cking loved this movie.
I just a strong feeling going in that Dawn was going to be a better movie than its barely passable 2011 predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. That movie, though, had the benefit of following Tim Burton’s poorly conceived, poorly executed attempt at an Apes “reimagining.” So, even though it had sloppy directing, clunky writing, and James Franco, fans generally embraced Rise. Fittingly, the character who moviegoers most connect with was the 100% CGI chimpanzee protagonist, Caesar. His character arc, his place in the story, was surprisingly well put together. You watch the movie and you end up caring about the little guy.
But, overall, the positive reviews for that film mostly came by way of “it didn’t suck as bad as it could have.” It made X amount of money, so a sequel was promised right away. We had franchise potential here. Maybe the second one would actually be good, we all dared to dream.
I’ve racked my brain for a while after seeing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, trying to remember a time when such a mediocre Hollywood offering got such a major talent upgrade for the sequel. I came up with zilch. This movie is, quite possibly, the greatest sequel of all time when you factor in the disparity in quality between it and its predecessor. How the hell did this happen? I mean, what fatcat hollywood producer wasn’t paying attention as they shot Dawn, and was therefore unable to sabotage the production with last minute script changes? What investors didn’t step in and say they were gonna pull their money unless someone gave Ben Affleck a telephone call?
For an example of one of my typical “good reviews”, Read my Ender’s Game Review
I don’t know how this movie happened, but I’ve very glad it did. I’d qualify myself as a real Planet of the Apes fan. Like a trekkie, except for the Apes. An Apie. I’ve seen the Heston movie so many times growing up I’m pretty sure I could produce accurate storyboards for the whole film, including dialogue bubbles, all from memory. I’ve even become quite fond of that film’s immediate, linear sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which, amazingly, managed to pull together an ending nearly as shocking as that in the first film. I’ve seen all the rest of the films too, but, for me, everything besides the first two were just curiosity pieces. It was fun seeing the great Roddy McDowall keep coming back and putting on the Ape outfit, but I never really took those sequels too seriously.
Finally, after all these years, I have a third Ape movie to complete my own personal Ape Trilogy. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes demonstrates a genuine understanding of the various elements that made the Heston film work. The desert, fatalistic tone, the dueling themes of racism/intolerance and family/self preservation. There always hangs in the air a nauseating but exhilarating feeling that none of this is going to end well for anybody involved, not even the apes. Director Matt Reeves recognized what made the original movie work and was able to identify those subtle things that, collectively, made that movie such an enduring science fiction classic.
Reeves took this knowledge and he did the impossible: he totally pulled off a 2+ hour movie that starred about 1034 CGI apes w/ machine guns. God, there were SO many ways this movie could have sucked, should have sucked, and Reeves managed to navigate those rapids without capsizing the kayak. My God, man! He had so many opportunities to muck things up. So many creative decisions that could have undermined everything. He could have had the apes talking perfect English to each other, which would have been believable based on what we saw in the Franco movie, but would have been disastrously corny (instead, the apes communicate mostly via sign language, with the occasionally guttural word of English thrown in).
Or he could have had a bearded, disheveled James Franco emerge from the forest and join in on the adventure (Franco’s presence was mercifully isolated into a brief camcorder nostalgia scene). And/or Reeves could have botched the “human” casting—many a good movie is a single casting choice away from being a great movie. All it takes is one Ben Afleck or Ryan Reynolds or to stink up an entire film. This movie was miraculously spared such a fate! Wasn’t the case!
Jason Clarke is a quality actor. He doesn’t necessarily have the marquee looks, but hell, that works in his favor. Makes him that much more believable, and in a movie where apes ride on horseback toting machine guns, we need all the believability we can get. He manages to be a nice guy without ever seeming weak or foolish. I’ll spare you the spoilers. Watch the extended trailer and you’ll basically know exactly what’s going on plot-wise. Actually, don’t watch that—it gives away too much. I’ll just say Clarke’s character, Malcolm, a representative from a doomed community of humans, forges an unsteady alliance with the leader of the territorial, and completely independent community of apes (comprised of the many apes who survived the first movie—plus their kids!).
The lovely Keri Russell plays Ellie, a sort of vet/doctor who comes in handy at exactly the right moments. Actually, as much as I like her, Keri Russell’s character’s timely usefulness, plot-wise, sort of strained my disbelief at times. If this were any other movie, I’d flay this thing alive for some of the “Oh, thank god we brought her along” moments re: her character’s useful medical skills. But this level of nit-pickiness, considering the overall quality of the film, feels like looking a gift ape in the mouth. Plus, we get to have Keri Russell in the first place. We could have someone more along the lines of an Amy Adams—a fine enough actress, but can she roll with the apes?
Gary Oldman’s great as the ape-phobic mayor of a dying city of human refugees. Based on the trailer, I was expecting his character to be a bit over the top, but no. The mayor’s decisions, his fears and hopes and despair—it all works. One of my favorite scenes in the movie, an intentionally awkward, high-stakes standoff between Oldman and another human character, didn’t involve an ape at all. It was a scene that poked some fun at the confusing, conflicting nature of that particular point in the move.
Of course I can’t forget Caesar, portrayed via motion-capure suit by Andy Serkis. As was the case in the first movie, Caesar is the undisputed star of the show. This time he doesn’t have James Franco around to sort of humanize him, but now he has his own family, who help him reach emotional heights unseen in the first movie. Really, this CGI ape does some amazing acting. And I’m not talking about him bouncing around with his arms hanging, throwing monkey-fists up into the sky. I can freaking do that (I did it just now in the mirror to prove my point to myself).
I mean his eyes, his face. The artists who brought these emotions to the screen, whipped them up from nothing but ones and zeros and weird Andy Serkis mo-cap grimaces, deserve some real recognition. The emotions, the humanity is what matters—that’s why we cared about the first movie despite its often shoddy storytelling. Despite Franco and his crinkly faced smile. If you can convince me there’s a soul inside, I can forgive the occasionally, inevitable instances of fake milky eyes or wacky gravity. After all, it may be decades still before CGI finally transcends such things; the apes may rule long before then. As long as the film works, I’ll be nice. If the film sucks, I’ll take no prisoners—I’ll closely inspect and ridicule every computer-generated eyeball. Don’t make me do it!!!
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes freaking works. And again I ask: how did this movie happen? I really want to know. The producers could have saved a lot of money, crapped out a movie half as good, and still made a nice enough profit. This film’s goodness was completely unprovoked. Good word-of-mouth is nice for entertainment magazines and Comic-Con, but does it really get more butts in seats? Hard to say because there’s so little data. Good word-of-mouth for a big-budget tentpole is practically a myth. There are no good “big” movies. Some have some nice qualities, sure, but then Sam Worthington or someone shows up and it all goes to pot. I mean it. I’m being general as hell and I don’t care. Again, best case scenario, it’s usually a case of “this Shia LaBeouf movie sucks less than that Tom Cruise movie.” Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the real deal.
Good word of mouth. The grand experiment starts right here, right now. I pray, in Roddy McDowall cadence, to the Apes: may you indeed inherit the land…of Hollywood. May your example be seen and appreciated by all. Style, artistry, pizzazz, risk—let these things once again teem verdant in the barren wastes of the beast Man. For he is yet weak, and, through incompetence and greed, destroys just about every film property he touches.
Dawn of the Apes shows that accidents can still happen. Good movies can still thrive in the Forbidden Zone. So says the Lawgiver. Hear him!