Here’s a quick history of things that happened: All the way back in 1968, a movie named Planet of the Apes was released. It was a massive success, and it spawned a series of increasingly dumb sequels. This was kind of sad, because Planet of the Apes is a really good movie (if you have never seen it, then I definitely recommend you give it a try). The problem was that these low-quality sequels diminished the reputation of the original, and the whole idea of a planet were apes are in control and human are their servants (which is a silly idea to begin with) became a punchline. A punchline that gave us something as wonderful as this, but it was still much worse a fate than the original movie deserved. In 2001, Tim Burton was tapped to sleepwalk his way through directing one of the laziest and stupidest remakes ever made, and the public’s view of the franchise sunk even further. Ten years later, however, another attempt was made at reviving the Apes, and to pretty everyone’s surprise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes ended up being a pretty great movie.
Now, after its rise and fall and rise again, the Planet of the Apes movies try to go into a new direction. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a direct sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as it follows its protagonist, super-intelligent chimpazee Caesar (played using performance capture technology by Andy Serkis). The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where a deadly virus has decimated the earth’s human population, and a few of the humans that remain alive come into contact with Caesar’s ape colony, which has thrived and created a society for itself in California’s Red Wood Forest. There is no doubt of what the filmmakers (led by director Matt Reeves of Cloverfield fame) are trying to do here. The critical and financial success of Rise, which was praised for the way it took the story of an intelligent ape as seriously as it possibly could, has made the producers over at 20th Century Fox think that they have the next big “serious” blockbuster summer franchise. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is nothing if not ambitious. It is bigger, grander, and wants to feature as many ” big themes” as it possibly can. The problem with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that, not unlike another sequel released this summer, going bigger and grander has resulted in a movie that loses track of what was actually good about the original.
The thing about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that is basically a movie about apes. I liked it so much when I saw it that I kept wanting to draw thematic parallels to any topical problems in society or world politics (after all the first Planet of the Apes was clearly about race), and I came out empty handed. There is some stuff about hubris, the folly of trying to play God, and that kind of thing, but mostly, the movie is just concerned with the story of this particular ape. That ended up being precisely what made Rise feel so refreshing; it took a silly premise and treated it as seriously and carefully as it possibly could. The result was a fantastic summer movie. Now, when I say it treated the movie seriously, I mean it connected with the main character, and build a movie around Caesar that was predicated on what he would do in any possible moment. It was surprising to see how dedicated to the emotional saga of a single ape the movie could be.
On the other hand, Dawn bites off more than it can chew. It doesn’t want to be the story of a bunch of apes. It wants to be much more. It wants to be an epic about the beginning of humanity and dawn of civilization, but also an anti-war movie, and a post-apocalyptic drama. It wants to be about so many things it forgets to be about the one thing that the first movie was about: it isn’t about Caesar. As a matter of fact, it isn’t about any character. The fascination that the filmmakers of Rise seemed to have with the idea of an ape that slowly becomes more like a human is traded for a bunch of apes that represent different human traits, and play the most archetypical roles of the most archetypical classic stories. What is even more disappointing is that the movie starts off with some interesting dynamics in the ape colony. We meet Caesar, his son Blue Eyes, the tough second-in-comand Koba, and the ape equivalent of an intellectual, Maurice the orangutan. They have relate to each other and have particular thoughts about humans and how to deal with them that feel like they might go in an interesting direction. Sadly, roughly at the halfway mark, the movie decides that it doesn’t have time for this, and throws away any kind of nuance in order to become the most predictable action epic you could possibly imagine. And that’s not even mentioning the humans, who aren’t even half as interesting as the apes.
The character that suffers the most from this development is Koba (Toby Kebell). We actually met Koba in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, he was the mean chimp who had been scarred by the many ways he had been mistreated by humans. He was one of the more interesting and nuanced side-characters of the previous movie, and he begins this movie the same way. He has two of the movie’s best moments: one in which we see him cleverly come up with a plan to escape when he finds himself in the presence of two dangerous humans, the other when he argues with Caesar pointing out to the (literal) wounds of his past as signs that the humans shouldn’t be trusted. After those two pretty terrific moments, he turns into a moustache-twirling villain, with a plan and attitude you should only be able to find in the laziest of screenwriting.
I was sorely disappointed in this movie, but I do have something positive to say about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and it’s that it is an incredibly technical proficient movie. The performance capture technology and the CG have increased leaps and bounds in quality since the first movie, making Koba, and especially Maurice, be some of the best computer-generated creatures the cinema has ever see. Curiously, Caesar isn’t nearly as expressive, or realistic as these two supporting characters. Maybe it’s the fact that he looks too much like a human to feel natural. Anyway, the effects are great, and other technical elements like the sound design show the involvement of an actual thinking director in the making of the movie. It’s just a pity that he was working with such a disposable script.
Grade: 5 out of 10