Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
After surprising everyone in 2011 with the incredible Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox is bringing the film’s sequel to the big screen this week. I got the chance to check out the film earlier this week and it’s just as good as you hoped it would be. The hype surrounding the film is well deserved, so come inside and find out why.
It’s important to note, that I’ve always been a fan of the Planet of the Apes franchise. The original films from the 60s remain powerful social commentaries and pieces of cinema. Yet, I didn’t go into Rise of the Planet of the Apes expecting much. Tim Burton’s attempted reboot soured the franchise and made me fear for the next attempt at kickstarting the franchise, but Rise blew me (and many other critics) away.
It nabbed the top spot for my pick for the best film of 2011, so I went into Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with the opposite mentality. Whereas I went into Rise with virtually no expectations, I went into Dawn with an incredible amount of hype and high expectations. I was a little nervous about this, as I wasn’t sure the film could live up to the hopes I had placed upon it. Fortunately, it went above even those lofty expectations.
A Small Story in a Big World
From the trailers and marketing for the film, it’d be easy to assume that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes the story to a much larger scale than what we saw in the previous film. That’s not the case, however, and it’s one of the things that works in the movie’s favor. It’s still a fairly compact story that revolves are Caesar as he attempts to maintain the status quo and ultimately keep his band of apes happy and extinction free.
It’s a smaller scale story that feels way more personal for it, but it’s effects will have consequences on the larger world (and any potential sequels). For me, this is the best of both worlds. You get to see parts of the big picture, and know that something larger is happening, but you get the emotional attachment that comes from a smaller/tighter story.
One of the issues I’ve had with comic book based films over the years has been that each film thinks it has to tell a story on some epic scale. If the world isn’t in danger then it’s not a story worth telling to them. It works in some instances (like Avengers), but on the whole, it’s becoming “old hat” with films, and it’s infecting other blockbuster style films. It’s something I worried about going into Dawn, but thankfully those fears prove unnecessary.
Yes, there is a pretty awesome battle scene. Yes, there are hints about something far bigger coming in the future, but the film itself keeps the story grounded. In the ten years since the events of the first film, humans are on the brink of extinction and Caesar has been the undisputed leader of a large group of intelligent apes out in the forest. When they encounter humans for the first time in a couple years is when the shit hits the fan.
Ultimately the film is about Caesar learning his own lessons about equality, trust, and the importance of not being blinded by his own perceptions. I’m trying to veer away from spoilers, but something bad happens, and Caesar ends up betrayed and then must find away to liberate his own kind while reclaiming his “throne” in order to ensure. Family plays a key theme throughout this storyline, but I’m going to talk about that in a little bit.
The film is very much still Caesar’s story and the focus is put squarely on his struggles. Like I said, however, this story will have a drastic impact on the world on the whole. This gives the film, and the actions of the key players, powerful consequences, which makes everything that happens feel important in some way.
The original Planet of the Apes films weren’t just works of science fiction, they were biting social and political commentary. They played on themes of equality, racism, and the perils of nuclear armament, and the longevity of those themes are among the reasons the original films have withstood the test of time. It’s a tradition that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has kept in tact.
The film focuses on a handful of themes in order to deliver a powerful message. While family has been the biggest focus of the marketing efforts so far, other themes regarding trust and equality are handled just as well. It’s hard to really talk about them more without going into specifics of the film and reaching into spoiler territory, so if I seem vague, that’s why.
The guiding theme in this film is what family means to one another, and what people are willing to do in order to make sure they’re family is safe. The film focuses on family in the literal sense of those a person is directly related to, but also family in terms of the people around you that you depend upon. Both the humans and the apes live in their own little colonies. Everyone works together in order to survive, and have come to think of their groups as part of a larger family. For humans, they only have the people who managed to survive the Simian Flu to help each other, and the apes are still growing, but not evolved enough to be the dominant species.
The actions of the various characters in the film are based off of these concepts of family, though they differ greatly in how they want to achieve certain goals. Caesar wants to establish peace between the humans and apes. He wants to avoid conflict so that none of his people end up hurt or killed. Koba on the other hand, sees humans as a threat and something to be dealt with permanently. Their goals boil down to the same thing, ensuring their “family” of apes is protected and can thrive, how they go about it are drastically different.
It’s the same on the human side of the film, providing a nice comparison between the two factions. In fact, there are a lot of parallels between the human and ape scenes. It’s done with purpose and serves to highlight the film’s other theme: equality. The idea here is to showcase that neither side is superior, and that there’s good and evil regardless of race or species (honestly, during the battle scene I struggled with who I should be rooting for because they presented both sides so well!). When someone takes things too far, however, the consequences are dire and irreparable.
If I were to pick out the primary reason this film worked as well as it did, I’d have to go with the sense of consequences in the film. Everything that happens (both good and bad) comes with a consequence. Much like in the real world, the things we say and do come with after effects, whether we see them or not. This idea comes across in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes better than many movies I’ve seen in a while.
The blockbuster mentality is that these massive things happen (remember, if the world isn’t threatened it’s not a story), but the consequences feel so minor. You don’t feel like anything that happened had an impact. As a result, the movie feels like so much fluff and nothing more than mindless entertainment fair (the superheroes never die or see consequences for some of the problems they themselves cause). Every action in Dawn, however, felt like it carried weight with it.
There were several times throughout the film where something happened and I felt a distinctive tug on my emotions. This is because I knew, as an audience member, that whatever happened on screen had an genuine impact on the story and the development of the characters in general. At times when something happened, I found myself wondering how another character was going to react when they found out, taking me to a level of involvement with the story I don’t normally feel in movies. Best of all, the film shows audiences the consequences of those actions so that it’s not a nagging question mark at the end of the film.
It’s a testament to how well written the story is and the ability of the filmmakers to trim the fat in their scenes and focus on only those moments that moved the story and characters to their ultimate conclusion.
Okay, I think I’ve discussed the story enough and how well told the story is to finally come around to this subject: the acting. One of the primary reasons Rise of the Planet of the Apes surprised everyone, is due to Andy Serkis’ amazing portrayal of Caesar. The man once again turns in an award winning performance (seriously, give this man an Oscar), but he’s not the only start to shine this time around. He’s surrounded by an incredibly strong cast, all of whom turn in performances worthy of mention.
Toby Kebbel has a role that I’ll be thinking about for a long time. His portrayal of the more militant and angry ape Koba (which we saw the seeds of in Rise) was strong enough to damn near outshine Andy Serkis. An amazing feat considering that most of the time in movies it feels like Serkis is simply giving acting lessons to his co-stars in any given scene.
Jason Clarke manages to hold his own and stand out in all of his scenes as well. In fact, everyone did an amazing job on this film. The performances felt real, and people reacted in a way that you’d expect their characters to given the situations they’re placed in. Nobody felt like they were dead weight. While some of the humans and apes are a little underused (Kerri Russell and Gary Oldman feel way underutilized), their scenes are nonetheless important to the overall story development.
The point is, where Serkis stole the show in Rise of the Planet of the Apes from his fellow actors (and rightly so), this time around he’s surrounded by a cast who manage to hold their own with him and elevate everything to a new level.
If you hadn’t noticed from the various footage and still images we’ve seen, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes features some drop dead gorgeous computer generated images. Seriously, this is taking special effects to an all new, and exciting, level. I never thought, I’d be watching a film that told a story and elicited so many emotions from me by using various close-ups and interactions with CG constructs.
Granted a lot of the emotion conveyed in the performances come due to the use of mo-cap technology and the advances they’ve made in the last few years, but it’s impressive that the graphic artists were able to capture that emotion so well. It’s hard to not be blown away by some of the scenes in the film. I had to remind myself that a certain shot was created in the computer!
Sure, there are some moments where the uncanny valley sets in and it’s recognizable as being animated in the computer, but on the whole, those moments are few and far between. Even during those times, it wasn’t enough to take me out of the experience of the film. For the entire film, I felt that these apes were real characters and interacting in this world. While other films have featured some great VFX recently, none of them have reached the level of believability that Dawn has.
The version of the film I saw was in 3D and there’s not a whole lot of reason for you to purchase a 3D ticket. I’m struggling to think of times where 3D effects were actually used and aside from the intro, I’m coming up short. Not that any of it was distracting, but it seemed like a waste of the technology. If you’re trying to figure out which ticket you should buy for the film, don’t worry about shelling out the extra cash for the 3D screening.
The acting is top notch all around, the story is engaging, the characters believable, and the visual effects are out of this world. The only real gripe I have is that a great actor like Gary Oldman seemed woefully underused in the film. Even so, that’s a small complaint in an otherwise amazing film.
Miss Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in theaters at your own peril.