DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Review: Monkey See, Monkey Do
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which begins ten years after the end of the action in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, finds humanity all but wiped out. The “Simian Flu” (as the man-made virus came to be known) took a devastating toll on the world’s population, including San Francisco, which now is comprised only of the hundreds of people who have a natural immunity to the virus. Their survival has been hard and is getting harder, as resources are dwindling.
Leaders Malcolm (Jason Clark) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) have a plan to change that by restoring a nearby power-generating dam that will supply them with electricity. The only thing standing between them and that goal is a redwood forest full of highly evolved apes. The apes – who aren’t even sure if humanity still exists – have established a large and peaceful community entirely cut off from the humans that helped evolve them and tried to eliminate them. They have not only survived, but have thrived, with a new generation of apes coming into their own, a fully developed sign language, and a leadership hierarchy, atop which sits Caesar (Andy Serkis).
When Malcolm leads a small group of humans to the dam, the group finds itself in the apes’ territory. A brief but violent confrontation occurs, which creates a divide within the simian community. Caesar, who was raised by a human (James Franco‘s Will Rodman in the first film), wants to help; Koba (Toby Kebbell), who was viciously tortured by humans, does not. There is also a divide in the human community. Malcolm knows how evolved the apes are and wants to work with them, while Dreyfus believes their evolution to be overstated and sees the apes as subservient and a hinderance to restoring electricity. A power struggle ensues that reaches a conflicted and violent climax both among and between the two groups.
The opening set-piece in Matt Reeve‘s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is sensational. It is an electric and fluid showcase of apes in habitat, doing everything from battling natural enemies and giving birth, to communicating via sign language and recognizing an established leadership hierarchy. It sends a clear message: 10 years after the events of the previous film, nature has restored order.
Enter man, who tries like crazy to screw it all up. And it’s when man enters the picture that the open’s promise of an amazing filmgoing experience turns into just another action flick, albeit one posing as a message movie, with two-dimensional characters and, you know, with apes.
Man is represented by a small group of people who meet minimum character requirements and little else. Malcolm is the Human Protagonist and wanter of the peace. Dreyfus is the Human Antagonist who disagrees with Malcolm’s ape relations policy. Ellie (Keri Russell) is the Obligatory Woman in Malcolm’s life, and Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the Future Generation (Malcolm’s son from his deceased wife). Rounding out the ragtag core are Hothead Carver (Kirk Acevedo) and Other Guy Foster (Jon Eyez). And there’s your humanity, save a couple hundred nameless seat-fillers.
Assigned to man (as a collective) are base societal attributes – an air of superiority, a dependence on technology, a love of guns – all of which are superficially presented and used only as an excuse to create conflict; there is no great or deep meaning to these. Apes are the enemy the way Russians are the enemy in many 1980s action movies. Technology is the goal because improving life is always the goal (barring the need to run a gauntlet to get from Point A to Point B). And guns are the weapons they have always been, but their presence here is so overt as to be almost laughable. This is a group of people who, after a decade, haven’t figured out how to make the most of their “new” lives, yet they have amassed an army’s worth of firepower – including tanks.
The apes are deeper characters, but “deeper” is a relative term simply because it means the apes have the history of the first film behind them (there are no human character carryovers). Without that history (read: judging this film on its own merits), Caesar is essentially Malcolm’s counterpart, Koba is Dreyfus’ counterpart, and so on, right down to love interests, children, obligatory others, and seat-fillers. There is an added dimension of a power struggle between Caesar and Koba, plus a rift within the ape community, throwing a little Shakespearian heft their way. The humans have nothing remotely close to this.
The apes are in defense mode – be it by peace or war – so the only issue that really flares up for them is the gun issue. Again, overt is the keyword here; Caesar hates guns and wants them destroyed, while Koba … not so much. It is interesting, though, how guns play into the apes’ lives as an extension of their accelerated evolution. Man loves guns, man comes from apes, apes love guns. I thought this was a rather clever addition to that evolution. Their bodies are still simian, but their minds are even more human than ever.
Without intricacy of plot, complexity of character, or depth of issue, all that remains is conflict, be it us vs. us, them vs. them, and/or us vs. them. Thematically, it’s all been done before, and better. Visually, once you get past some legitimate WOW moments regarding how the apes look (particularly charging through fire on horseback), you realize the action has been done better, too.
What has never been done better before is the presentation of the apes. The looks, the sounds, and the movements are remarkably real. This is, of course, a testament to Reeves and his creative team, but without the actors “beneath” the FX – Serkis, Kebbell, Judy Greer, and so many others – this film simply doesn’t happen. On the human side, the only actor worthy of note is Clarke. This is no shot at the others, who make the best with what little they are given. Clarke, as the film’s human lead, has a little more to work with and makes the most of it.
On a technical note, I had the great privilege to screen this film in a theater equipped with a Dolby Atmos Sound System. It was like nothing I had heard before (and I’ve heard sound on that system numerous times). Ambient noise – apes making sounds in the distance, trees swaying, at one point in-scene music – sounded like it was actually going on the auditorium, not on the screen. Great credit should be given to the film’s sound department for a magnificent aural presentation.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film loaded with ideas, and good ones. It has good ideas about themes. It has good ideas about characters. It has good ideas about messages. But those themes and ideas and messages have all been done before, and not only better, but fuller. Once this film sets up its initial framework, it ignores better and fuller and instead relies on its VFX and apes the hollow action films that have come before it.