I was not a fan of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I thought the movie was fairly silly but had this pretty cool ending credit sequence that made me think the graphic designers were smarter than the writers. So going into this sequel I wasn’t sure how I felt. My friend Big C informed me that he had watched the previous film that day in preparation. I think the idea of preparing to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is giving the franchise too much credit.
Whereas the first film was full of irrationally mean or dumb humans with dialogue straight out of a 9th grade morality play, the sequel decides to play smart and stay smart.
This new film opens to a close up of our leading man/ape, Caesar, about to lead his people on a great hunt. It’s a bunch of generated apes and a bunch of generated antelope and a bear. I’m not sure what purpose this scene served except to show off the special effects. Something I didn’t need since even though they are pretty impressive, I could still tell it was VFX. However, soon the spectacle quickly gives way to story and character and emotion. Only at the very end does the spectacle rise up to cloud an otherwise great film.
In truth, there’s not much action in Apes and this is a good thing. What we have is a smartly written, slow burn of a movie that describes two separately forming societies. The apes as lead by Caesar and the humans, who are rebuilding society after the simian virus wiped out most of the planet. Malcolm, a human on a mission to find and restart a dam so his fellow humans can have power, leads his group into the forest where he happens upon the apes by accident. Neither group has seen each other in years and the tension runs high as no one is quite sure if either is the enemy.
This is what the film gets most right. It shows each group for what it is: a society trying to survive and live in peace. The years of isolation and desolation create a palpable fear. Many of the apes remember being locked in cages for science experiments. Many of the humans remember the ape rebellion that started the beginning of the end for man kind. But in this opening moment we see what kind of leaders Malcolm and Caesar really are. Reluctant to go to war, they both take the encounter back to their respective tribes and create an uneasy truce while the apes help the humans start the dam back up.
There are bad seeds. Jerk-face Carver has some unexplained hatred of the simians that leads him to pull out his gun too often. And Koba, right hand ape to Caesar, was so tortured in his cage that the idea of helping people drives him to the brink of his loyalty. To prove his fears correct, Koba goes to spy on the humans back in town and discovers they are testing weapons. He assumes they are about to betray the truce. This isn’t exactly correct but it provides the central thematic tension of the film. No one is actually the bad guy. By finding the parallels in all their goals, the script forms a sense of dread when a series of misunderstanding between the two groups builds into what you know is coming: war.
Malcolm is the calm right hand man to Dreyfus, who is willing to try peaceful cooperation, but as leader of his people Dreyfus knows that starting the dam is the best chance of survival. And there’s only so much time he has before peace gives way to necessity.
Caesar knows helping the humans is unpopular but fears their better technology and believes that showing aggression will lead to the ultimate destruction of the ape population. Thus it goes.
It reminded me of a simian heavy Lord of the Flies. The smart entities of the film keep the delicate balance of peace while the fearful ones make a strong case for destruction.We watch the slow unravelling like a Rube Goldberg device until, much to our dismay and against our better judgement, we accept and understand that the fear will probably win. Not all the apes are on board and Koba quickly takes over, imprisioning his own kind. This is heavy stuff people. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does not really pull many punches. It’s not some mindless bucket of blood filled action, but one motivated by ideas and strong dialogue. You cringe at all the bad about to happen because you really can understand how we got here and don’t want to blame anyone.
The only real negative is the big fight at the end. Flashiness takes the late shift while reason goes home for a nap and we have the supposedly exciting ape fight on top of a falling tower. Earlier I was gripping the seat at apes quietly sneaking around the human encampment. But when the computer power of 20th Century Fox goes into full gear, the drama leaves. Every falling piece of rebar meant nothing to me. Watching two computer generated titans battle it out is just not compelling. I just wanted to know the outcome because that’s where the brains are at. Instead the battle kept coming. Watching the befallen titan crash to the earth would have been enough. Seeing his limb catch a cord and pull a computer generated crane down on top of his computer generated body was just a lack of restraint and unnecessary. But this is only the ending. Everything else is smart stuff. At 130 minutes it feels more like 100. Go see this.