Is It Cool?: Excellence in Filmmaking
This is the second installment of the re-booted Planet of the Apes franchise. Before we delve too far into Dawn, let’s do a fast recap of Rise just to keep us all on the same page. The first in this series, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a smash hit in the summer of 2011 and set up a story in which human audiences couldn’t help but cheer for the apes. That installment made the “right” side of things fairly obvious. It raised ethical questions about animal cruelty that were easy to answer because after all, we are all God’s creatures and should be treated gently, right? So by the end of Rise, you find yourself cheering on the Apes who are escaping the cruelty of bad humans. You left that theater experience blown away by the astounding motion capture visuals and patting yourself on the back for (rightly) cheering on the underdog—er—Ape.
Fast forward three years to Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In movie time, a decade has passed between the last film and this current feature. Caesar (Andy Serkis supported by the astounding artistry of WETA) has become the leader of the Apes and they’ve gone on to set up an organically complex natural community in the way that Swiss Family Robinson might have done…had they been Apes. We see them organized as hunters, riding horses, using tools and weapons, signing, speaking, and we even get a glimpse of a classroom. I couldn’t help but smile as an almost “Ten Commandments” style line was scrawled on the wall behind the teacher. The camera locks down long enough for you to read “Ape not kill Ape.” We even witness Caesar’s concern and love for his mate as she gives birth. The filmmakers establish a fascinating and multi-layered civilization into which you, the viewer, are given teasing glimpses. My inner Jane Goodall was wishing we had seen even more! This is a structured community with Caesar as leader of hundreds of apes, all of whom have distinct thoughts and personalities. As exciting and astounding as this is, it starts to change something fundamental about the story. Remember how the ethical questions in the first movie are easy to answer? Well, what happens when suddenly those innocent animals you’ve been cheering for develop higher reasoning and are essentially evolving to become “humane” if not human?
And speaking of humans, where are they in this story?
The human population has been nearly wiped out by the Simian Flu. Only those with natural immunity have survived in small dystopian pocket societies. The humans in this installment have set up shop in a once thriving metropolis and, as we are now, are completely dependent on fuel to sustain them. Supplies are dwindling and so the Humans must send a team up to the now defunct hydroelectric dam to try and repair it. It is this “repair party” who first encounter the Apes. This first meeting results in a young Ape being shot and essentially sets the tone for all Human/Ape interactions to follow. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is set up early in the story to be the diplomat of the Human species. It is the interaction between Malcom and Caesar which drive the story. They are partners, of sorts, in the quest for peace and futures for both species. If the Apes, and Caesar in particular, are the hero of this story, where, then, is our villain? After a particularly brutal betrayal by Koba (the brilliant Toby Kebbell), Caesar’s trusted lieutenant, war breaks out between the Apes and the Humans.
Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is the appointed leader of Humans. Despite Oldman’s talents, the character of Dreyfus is really more of a stand-in for Humankind as a whole. It is Dreyfus who, when the war has begun and the humans are losing, has a plan to level the Apes and ultimately calls out “They’re just animals!” Because, really, aren’t they? NOT. SO. FAST.
Remember how I said the ethical questions have changed? Welcome to the new ballgame.
Those of us cheering for the Apes at the end of Rise now find ourselves swallowing heavily, loosening collars, and bouncing our knees in anxiety watching Dawn.
Who do we root for?
Where Rise was a liberation story, Dawn is a full out war story, and don’t kid yourselves — war is ugly.
This is a two ride through gorgeous digital art, compelling story points, and mounting tension. The set up for the next installment is absolutely brilliant, and I find myself hoping that we aren’t left waiting three years…
The film also stars Keri Russell and a few other good folks, but honestly, they become background noise at worst and utilitarian building blocks at best to support the much bigger and more important picture of the story.
Directing, design, camera work, costumes, all of it felt so authentic to the world of the film that I found myself completely forgetting that this is a Fantasy film.
What’s it Saying?: Message of the Movie
This is absolutely a story about the importance of judging people and situations for who and what they actually are and not about your preconceptions or prejudices. Yes, it’s a story about humans and apes, but it could just as easily be about race, gender, nationality, sexuality, or any of a million other things that we like to hate each other for.
This is a think piece and a darn good one. You will leave the theater full of questions of “what if” and those questions will get you thinking.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: Morality in the Movie
The movie is violent, but not gratuitously so. There’s fire, death, graphic hunting, murder, fighting, and more. Nothing is overly gory, but I would still recommend caution for younger viewers particularly under age 10. There is nothing sexually inappropriate and crude language is extremely minimal.
That's Right. I Said It: Reviewer Comments
You don’t have to be a longtime fan of the Planet of the Apes to enjoy this movie. Even if you didn’t see Rise this one still works fine as a stand-alone piece.
I’m ALL OVER the extra features when this puppy comes out on DVD. I want to see behind the scenes of the special effects magic! Plus, I want to see more of Ape-land, as I’m calling it.
I feel almost bad for the fact that the Humans are generic and I don’t even care.
There are SO MANY GOOD moral and ethical questions here.
My stomach is a ball of tension right now. This movie is INTENSE, man. I’m uncomfortable, but in a very satisfying kind of way. Does that even make sense?