director Matt Reeves
viewed: 07/19/2014 at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, SF, CA
2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a surprisingly strong resurgence of a pop culture franchise that seemed quite unlikely. Three years later, and following turnover in every most every major area a film can have: stars, director, writers (the sort of thing that never bodes well for a film franchise), out leaps Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And like its predecessor, it may well prove out to be one of the best films of this year’s summer.
The one guy who is back isn’t onscreen himself, but plays out in motion-captured avatar as Caesar, the lead chimpanzee, tragic hero of the last film, essentially star of the sequel. Andy Serkis is the man behind the motion capture acting. He’s been Gollum and King Kong and he’s joined by a whole team of other ape actors in this film.
What’s interesting to me is how this film is really in many ways very dedicated to its whole narrative. The story picks up some unclear number of years after Rise, the human race has been decimated by the “simian flu” that the research in the first film gave rise to. The apes who escaped to Marin County have proliferated, developed their own society, buildings, teachings. They’ve had no contact with humans.
San Francisco has become one last bastion for humans, those who are immune to the virus, but still struggle to survive due to a lack of electricity and technology. It is after a hydroelectric dam that they look for in Marin that brings ape and man together again.
Like men, the apes have their good guys and bad guys, though Caesar has touted that no ape should kill another ape. At odds as they are, each extends a hand to try for a peaceful coexistence, only to have the bad ape, Koba (who remembers man’s brutality all too well) attempt to assassinate Caesar and make it look like the humans who did it. In the end, all the good will gets washed down in violence and leads to an inevitable war.
A war, which we all know, the apes have to win, since this is leading up to Planet of the Apes (1968) somewhere along the line. I swear we watched Planet of the Apes at some point but I didn’t write about it for some reason — maybe I didn’t get to watch the whole thing.
The apes are the good guys here. They’ve been victimized by humans and now have nobility and “humanity”. It’s hard not to see them a bit like Native Americans in the way that they are portrayed in the film, living off the land with no technology. Not sure this metaphor works perfectly, intentional or not.
What is interesting is how much the story moves forward throughout. There is a longer narrative begun in the first film that is pushed along through this sequel. And the emotional connection that Caesar continues to have to his adoptive father from before manages to strike home more significantly than a lot of other films with all human actors, not animated avatars. And it makes an inevitability of a following sequel not just seem likely but necessary.
The cynicism of Hollywood in sequels tends to be when a film needs to come about because the first one made money and people want more. Then a story has to be concocted with action and upping the drama, usually dependent as well on a movie star or two, who are the hook. The story is often just a latticework of scenes and action, building for some eventual dramatic showdown of action. This film, at least, felt like a much more cohesive narrative. Not necessarily a truly great film, but something quite different from the average.
Now, I saw this with the kids, and the film, while rated PG-13 is quite full of action and violence, and the chimps are fairly intimidating. It’s pretty intense on that front, certainly. But they both liked the film, though Felix said that he thought that the earlier film was better. It’s hard for me to say. It’s been three years and I couldn’t really draw the comparison as well.
I don’t know if they filmed even one scene in San Francisco, but they do a very keen job of making the post-disaster city seem very realistic. I assume that some folks very familiar with the city did a lot of design work on the film.
It’s been a pretty sorry year for movies so far, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes earns its points from me. One of the few I looked forward to and one of the few that felt worthwhile. And one of the even fewer that I will look forward to seeing a sequel to when it comes about.