If there’s one fault to find across this summer’s best blockbusters, it’s that we’ve become so good at translating plot very quickly, we often skirt over the story in order to highlight the stupendously good action. Much of this is due to the number of sequels and remakes we have – there’s less story to tell if we already know the characters and situation heading in.
The rebooted Planet of the Apes series then, remains a bit of a throwback. The first entry, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, outlined how genetically modified chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas first become intelligent, and how we humans accidentally destroy ourselves. It created a non-human hero in the chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis), raised by a caring human yet struggling to come to terms with being part of two worlds.
Now its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, takes the story to a darker, even more challenging place. While humanity dies out to the plague it invented, the intelligent apes have taken up residence in the Redwoods of California. They practice a non-violent society, but rifts between Caesar and the militant Koba (Toby Kebbel) become apparent when surviving humans happen into the forest.
The humans need power from a nearby dam, but the apes are wary. While the human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) distrusts the apes, his friend Malcolm (Jason Clarke) asks for three days to try to negotiate a settlement that avoids war. What follows is a one-step-forward, two-steps-back peace process that is one of the tensest pieces of storytelling this year. It’s a rare movie that shows how truly difficult it is to be a peacemaker between two cultures bent on destroying the other.
This is where Dawn stands out from other blockbusters. There’s so much more story here, so many compelling character moments for ape and man alike, that I’m astonished it all takes place in barely over two hours. There’s a miniseries’ worth of content here, packed in and yet given ample room to breathe and fill out the film’s world.
Needless to say, Koba and Dreyfus both use the lull of peace to mobilize their armies. And just like politicians do to justify their warmongering, they eventually need a war. Like Russia and Ukraine. Like Israel and Palestine. Like allies we fund and supply in Syria who become enemies the minute they cross into Iraq. It’s a tale we’re simultaneously knee-deep in and terrifyingly naïve about, boiled down to its essentials.
For the apes, who preach “Ape does not kill ape” in the beginning, the resulting betrayals and civil war also reflect a Cain and Abel narrative. Serkis and Kebbel deserve more appreciation than they’ll get as actors. Even though their performances result in CGI characters, they must develop Caesar’s and Koba’s relationship primarily through movement. Serkis, in particular, is famous for motion-capture characters ranging from Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies to the namesake of King Kong. Here, Serkis’s Caesar is understated, allowing Kebbel’s Koba to steal the show. These actors must convey human emotion in a non-human way, and essentially direct animators who later bring the rival chimpanzees to life. In its own way, this can be far more work than actors who aren’t motion-captured; Serkis has been campaigning for an Oscar nomination for years now and it’s high time he’s recognized for his unparalleled work.
The 3-D is very solid. Despite much of the action happening in gloom (a death knell for many 3-D films), the picture is always crisp and clear. Especially effective are the moments we see the world from the apes’ perspective – atop a redwood or the Golden Gate Bridge. I hope you don’t fear heights. 3-D always takes away some finer visual detail, no matter the film, so you’ll recognize a little bit more nuance to the apes’ emotions in the 2-D version, but you can’t go wrong – in either format, the film’s visuals are compelling and it has heart to spare.
This is a sequel that resonates, especially as we watch yet one more war break out halfway around the world. It connects emotionally. More importantly than showing you a world you’ve never seen before, it shows you a culture you’ve never seen before, and it tells the tragic story of how it’s torn apart the same way we tear ours apart. This is sci-fi at its best, both entertaining and meaningful.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13 for violence and language. Its action is reasonable without being brutal and, more importantly, it’s always grounded and given emotional context.