I will first make you aware that no matter how you group them or phrase it, I love monkeys, chimps, orangutans, and yes, apes. Our Simian brethren have long been my favorite animal and utterly fascinate me in real life. I lead with this because while I realize this movie falls into the science fiction category (another personal favorite), for now at least, part of my enjoyment stems from the clear research and thought put into the portrayal of these creatures.
With that out of the way, let me gush about the movie. Rarely do critics seem to so wholeheartedly agree – this is a summer blockbuster a touch beyond the typical. And with the nonsense of Transformers 4: Tokyo Drift contrasting Apes in theaters, we should appreciate the thought put into a summer popcorn epic, rather than the big flaming dump of garbage robots in disguise travesty (and I say that as someone who loved the cartoon, and somewhat enjoyed the 1st one) we are being subjected to. Unlike those grabbing paychecks or presumably sleeping with Michael Bay – save for T.J. Miller, who clearly was in that so he could have more material for his mad brilliance – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves and those involved get standing ovations/gold stars/highest of fives for this surprisingly thoughtful and completely entertaining film.
Should I pay to see it?
Yes. Yes. Mhmm. Indeed. Affirmative. Do it this weekend. Get your tickets. Honestly, if it stays in theaters long enough, I may see it again. I don’t think I’ve done that since The Dark Knight.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes strikes you from the get-go, with a jarring introduction/montage of clips over a dwindling light map of the population detailing the rapid decimation of the planet. You are instantly thrown into this new landscape, meaning a watching of Rise of the Planet of the Apes can provide additional fun, but is ultimately unnecessary beforehand to be drawn in. With a simple circling of the globe, one gets the sense of doom for humanity (though if you want to dive in some more, FOX & VICE teamed up for some very intriguing short films filling in the 10 year gap between Rise and Dawn). We the viewer are then tossed into the world of the apes and my-oh-my is that impressive. We see Caesar leading a hunt, immediately getting a sense of the apes’ communication and community before actually being taken to their new home in the forest.
You know how sometimes you see a movie and things don’t look quite right, then see some amazing concept art after the fact? No? Just me? Anyways, whoever designed and created the ape habitat alongside Production Designer James Chinlund for the film should hopefully win some form of credit. The shots of Caesars’ home and the ape ‘villages’ in the trees repeatedly struck me as visually impressive. The shots of a 10-year-wasteland San Francisco were equally stunning. On top of the landscape visuals building and setting us up in this new world, some of the finer bits of Dawn blew me away (without spoiling too much, there is a shot of an old gas station later in the film that I am still turning over in my mind).
Presumably, it could go without saying that the motion-capture technology and visuals are remarkable. I will say it nonetheless, as it bears repeating: Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell (who plays Koba) and the entire Mo-Cap crew are remarkable. The presentation of the apes, the fine details of their face and the computer-assisted look of the characters is augmented greatly by the obvious detail put into the ape movements. You believe what you see as apes. Andy Serkis and that whole crew deserve a big round of applause – they clearly studied (and this was likely done a bit for Rise too, however is much more on display here) ape sounds and movements because not only do they look real, thanks to tech, but everything feels remarkably organic and rich. The blending of ape-like sounds with human posture. The sign language/spoken english mashing. The reality of presentation makes the humans-as-apes believable as both animal and man (or “human-like,” I suppose) makes it all the more flabbergasting when they switch between ape-ness and strikingly human action. The sound of Dawn was remarkable, building both the grand epic as well as the more intimate sounds of Caesar and the ape culture. This audio/visual pairing works to build a movie with large scale as well as a strong heart, human or otherwise.
Could I watch it with a date?
An emphatic yes. Dawn is both emotional and lively for both human and intelligent ape. The director does a great job playing up the humanity in both ape & human colonies, and the darker side of both. There are a few odd edits (though ultimately the editing was quite clever, with many interesting cuts from ape-to-human, human-to-ape) and some clunky human dialogue – but this is not a discredit to Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee or any of the non-Jason Clarke/Gary Oldman humans. Rather, with such a focus on the apes (a choice that makes sense when you see the film, which was originally titled Caesar), the characters of Smit-McPhee as Clarke’s son and Russell as his, er, significant other are not poorly acted nor bad characters, merely underdeveloped. That’s about it for my criticism of the movie – they could have either trimmed down that human family unit by 10 minutes or added an additional scene or two throughout to flesh those two out a bit.
Forget the humans, though. This is not the dawn of man. The movie does a truly incredible job with the apes. Guided by the sounds and technology mentioned above, Reeves and crew convey a complex range of emotions and social/cultural growth in the new civilization led by Serkis’ Caesar through sign language, grunts, words and phrases and true simian gestures (and subtitles, which one barely notices). The ape scenes are often incredibly powerful. There are the obvious benefits of motion capture in believing these talking apes, but the director also uses more subtle ‘movie norms’ (for lack of a better descriptor) of a typical, similarly set up all-human action/thriller/dystopian future/sci-fi movie. There are several smaller transition shots that show ape interaction as you would in any movie and a particular example of this dynamic can be seen in the battle/fight scenes, where the shots, set up and fight choreography are not so dissimilar from a similar Jason Statham piece of combat. While I hesitate to say you forget they are apes (that’s not really the point, anyways – they embrace both their ape-ness and growing, more human-like awareness/consciousness), immersed in the movie you are drawn into the drama of the ape and human struggle alike.
There is a great dynamic throughout the film of ‘is it really Ape v. Human?’ After all, as Russell’s character points out, the ‘Simian Flu’ was really from humans testing monkeys – ‘they didn’t have much say in the matter,’ to paraphrase. The apes just want to live, as many of the humans do. The concept of warring clans, of war transcending species, works to create a world where you neither know what exactly you are rooting for, nor what the outcome would be. After seeing the movie, I came across a short piece from one of my favorites at /Film, David Chen, discussing one of the most powerful scenes in the film, one to which we both had similar reactions. He articulates the sentiment well, and I wish to extend further – this was one of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen in a Science-Fiction movie in a long time.
The scene in question revolves around the central ape conflict between Caesar and his right hand man, Koba. Koba knew nothing of humans but laboratory life, poked prodded and cut in the name of who knows what. So while Caesar knows what it is to see good in man, Koba, understandably, has an enormous distrust and barely-contained hate-fueled-rage of humans. As he and Caesar argue about the humans led by Clarke doing their work in piece, Koba, generally of grunts and glares, rises, toe to toe with Caesar and points to one scar, two scars, all his marks from the lab, each time bellowing, “Human. WORK.” The scene shocked me and Chen alike. Koba is shown to be dangerous, frightening and clever – mad as a hatter, even. Yet your heart absolutely breaks if you realize a similar set up happens all the time in human movies and we root, bloodthirstily, for vengeance. Careers have been made on revenge flicks with flimsier reasoning for violence. Chen does a nice job of discussing how that scene goes so far above and beyond your typical summer movie, but it is hard to accurately put into words how the scene will strike you in the film. I will admit it shook me a bit. Yes, this movie is fiction, the movie is popcorn-fun. However (and here I’ll nerd out only a little) we learn more and more every year, if not every day, about our misguided assumptions on other creatures’ intelligences – you’d be coldhearted, if aware of such new thinkings to not consider the human/animal interactions in our very real world.
Could I watch it with my mother?
Yes indeed, and the experience could be fun if she (or any parent) has seen or is a fan of the original goofy series. DotPotA (cannot believe it took me that long to use that delightful abbreviation) serves as a rare summer blockbuster that is both epic and encompassing of demographics – good for young, old, fans, non-fans and those too young to even be aware of the original series (no one mention that Tim Burton barf sandwich, thank you), and generally pleasing for genre fans of action, sci-fi and apocalyptic/dystopian tales. Though I had read great things across the board about the movie, I am still pleasantly surprised by its depth. All else aside, this is a tense action drama about families and community, about finding home and comfort after a disaster on the part of both human and simian culture.
For this complex understanding of what the world means now to both sides is the key element at play in these new Apes movies – the apes never asked for this. Caesar wants to survive and live in peace as do the more level-headed humans. However we can see both sides of the distrust once the two factions meet. Apes like Koba are justifiably concerned with peaceful human interaction. And while Kirk Acevedo plays a major asshole, he makes a salient point, and one easily (and in some ways chillingly) relatable to any type of disastrous event even in real life. When asked “You can’t really blame the apes, they didn’t ask for this,” he plainly replies; “Who else am I gonna blame?” Indeed he’s a jerk but in the face of such a large-scale catastrophe his point rings true in both the fictional world of Dawn and breaks through the 4th wall to us as well. Apes and humans alike in the movie, as we so often perpetuate in reality as humans, have dangerous generalizations as to ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ The movie may not be nearly as heavy handed in this delivery as I am being here, however it is a credit to the film, Reeves and all involved that Dawn can even spark such a train of thought – even more impressive when you consider this is a reboot/rehashing of something already done. We know those do not always work out. So while my adoration of the new Godzilla movie lies more in Gareth Edwards’ clear appreciation and dedication to honoring such a long-standing, mythical figure, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes sticks out to me as a similar-but-different example of how reboots, and sequels for that matter, should be done. Reeves takes the idea of ‘Planet of the Apes’ and gives it an appropriate, updated, time-relevant twist. The initial Rise was a fun, entertaining movie, one I re-watch if I catch it playing on TV. However Dawn takes that thread, that story, that world and enriches it in such a way you cannot help but appreciate the quality of the end result. With a clear lack of effort in so many places as Hollywood seemingly runs out of original ideas, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes serves as an exemplar of why we should not always be frightened when someone wants to re-explore a beloved franchise or concept.
Color me impressed. Go see this movie. I’m looking into work at a primate observation facility.