So throw your hands with opposable thumbs in the air… and wave ‘em like you just don’t care! And if you’re covered in hair, don’t wear underwear – somebody grunt “Oh Yeah!” I’m practicing that for when I get a gig as a DJ and apes take over the world after a man-manufactured plague decimates the human population. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place 10 years after the epilogue of 2011’s James Franco sci-fi flick, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The few humans left to survive the plague huddle together in small colonies in San Francisco while the escaped super smart apes from Rise of the Plan.. you know what, I’m just gonna refer to it as “Rise” and the sequel as “Dawn” – just realized how much copy and pasting I’d need to do to finish this article.
So smart apes from Rise get out of town and start a large clan of apes in the Muir Woods North of San Fran. And this super intelligent tribe, composed of chimps, orangutans and gorillas, now follow the ways and teachings of their leader, the wise and most dominant Caesar (motion captured performance brilliantly played by Andy Serkis of King Kong and The Lord Of The Rings fame). While the human population dwindles and is barely holding on, the ape population not only grows, but it also thrives, building a successful society with well organized hunting parties, schools and even a neonatal hospital wing for birthing more apes. (I sh*t you not – them damn, dirty apes got that). This was a Chimp-Utopia. Everything was idyllic, but the peace doesn’t last long. When man finally stumbles on to monkey paradise – the proverbial sh*t gets pooped and flung to hit the fan.
What I liked about Dawn was how director Matt Reeves convinces you to forget these are all computer generated characters playing apes. Soon after the exposition is set and establishing plot thickens, I gave in to the premise and soon started to feel for the apes as characters. That’s great acting, right? When you forget that the performance isn’t the product of a British man with balls taped to his body lumbering around and thumping his chest somewhere on a sound stage so that other guys in a special effects house can interpret those movements into something with emotional content and meaningful resonance. Seriously, there were moments during the movie when I thought to myself, “Man… this monkey really wants to win an Oscar”. Is it possible for a non speaking actor to garner an Oscar nomination? Or would he just have to be satisfied with a nomination for best special effects at an Oscar presentation unaired on TV? In any case, Andy Serkis really put his all into this role. His research and knowledge of how chimps and apes act and move about make him uniquely suited to play Caesar. He even had to learn how to ride a horse…not how a human would ride a horse, but how a chimpanzee would ride a horse. I guess there’s a difference. Kudos to him and the team of amazing animators who turned every glance and leer and intense roar into powerful moments in the film. Maybe Nic Cage could use a team of animators behind him to get some poignant, masterful performances out of him too (fingers crossed).
With pretty much half the cast still to be rendered elsewhere and at a later date, the human actors on Dawn had to pretend for most of the shoot that fictional creatures were interacting with them. Matt Reeves must have fired up their imaginations sufficiently to deal with a blank screen of blank monkeys. Every day, I bet it went like – Okay, imagine there are 200 apes hanging out in front of your fortress. They are pissed…and on horses…and carrying spears…and some have automatic firearms…ACTION!!!
Jason Clarke from White House Down (2013) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) plays Malcolm, one of the few level headed humans tasked with finding and reviving a power plant within the ape territory that would give precious power to the human colony already running on fumes. In contrast is Gary Oldman, who plays the colony’s governor of sorts, Dreyfus. His only priority is the survival of the human race, and if that means wiping out another race vying for supremacy, so be it. Keri Russell is in there too as Ellie, one of the only doctors to survive the plague. She wasn’t too important, perhaps just to move the plot along, but I guess if the movie is filled with scarred up apes and Gary Oldman for two hours, a pretty face now and again is a welcome sight.
Now I have not seen the Michael Bay monstrosity that is Transformers: Age of Extinction, and hopefully I can avoid seeing it or at the very least avoid paying money to see it. But that movie was poised to rake in the big Summer blockbuster bucks because of its primo release date before the 4th of July. It was primed to lick clean out of the coveted Independence Day Weekend honey pot, traditionally when movie ticket sales peak and set records. But for the first time in years movie ticket sales plummeted during that holiday weekend. I’m only speculating, but its probably because the ones who saw it prior to the weekend would not recommend watching it to their friends. I only bring this up because I heard many, many theater goers talk as they were walking out of my screening of Dawn. And the consensus was basically, “Man, that was so much better than Transformers”. Ha! Suck it, Michael Bay!
Perhaps the difference between these two Summer epics was that Dawn was not too complicated. It was a simple story – simple and familiar. It was outright Shakespearean. The comparisons between Dawn and Julius Caesar do not stop with just the protagonist’s names. The loss of an empire through betrayal by the ones he trusted the most. Its just a new retelling of an old story. And audiences appreciate that. Don’t jerk them around for 1 and ½ hours and then bring out the Dinobots in the last 5 minutes. Make the beginning, middle and end of the film interesting and the audiences will flock to it and clap in the end. Appreciate it so much that they’ll feel sorry for wounded, intelligent apes, instead of feeling sorry that they spent $12 on a crappy movie.
Verdict: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gets two enthusiastic opposable thumbs up.