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Josh Reviews Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I have been troubled by the popularization, over the past several years, of the idea of a “reboot” as a way to keep franchises evergreen and continually making money for the corporations that own them.  I think there are times when a reboot is foolishly chosen whereas a continuation would have been preferable (Exhibit A: the Spider-Man films).  And there are lots of examples of Hollywood choosing to remake a great or well-liked film as a lazy way of capitalizing on a familiar brand rather than daring to create something new or original.  This usually results in a lame, lesser version of the original (See: Robocop, Total Recall, I could go on…)

But not all reboots are bad.  I loved Christopher Nolan’s reboot of Batman in Batman Begins, and while it is too early to tell whether the again-rebooted Batman we’ll see in Batman V. Superman will be any good, I think Warner Brothers has the right idea in giving us a new version of Batman rather than trying to keep telling stories in continuity from the end of Mr. Nolan’s Batman Trilogy.  (I love Joseph Gordon Levitt, but thank goodness the rumors — following the release of The Dark Knight Rises — that he would star in a new movie as Batman proved to be false.)

Which brings me to Planet of the Apes.  I have always been a HUGE fan of the original five films.  That first Planet of The Apes from 1968 is a true classic, a fantastic film that holds up extremely well today.  The four sequels that were then churned out in short succession (basically one a year!!) are increasingly bad, but I still love them.  Even though the budgets shrank and they had to come up with increasingly ludicrous ways to continue the series, I am always impressed by the creativity shown in the ways they found to continue the story, by the ambition on display in the way they continued to incorporate social allegory into the film’s stories, and by just how much innocent goofy fun can be had when watching the films today.  I love them all.

The other nice thing about the original five films is how complete they feel as a series.  The fifth film cleverly wrapped the story back around to the first film, giving the five films together the feel of a complete saga.  I never felt that this series cried out for a continuation or a reboot.   Tim Burton’s idiotic attempt to remake/reboot the series is best forgotten, and strong evidence for the pitfalls in trying to remake/re-envision a famous film series.

But then came 2011’s Rise of the Planetof the Apes.  It had a dumb title, but I was shocked by how great it was.  (Click here for my original review.)  I loved the idea of remaking, not the famous original Charlton Heston Planet of the Apes, but the fourth of the original films, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, which told the story of how the humans started to lose control of the planet to intelligent apes, which would eventually result in the familiar Planet of the Apes that Heston discovered in the first film.  I was thrilled by how seriously director Rupert Wyatt and his team took the idea of telling a new version of that story, starting in present day and showing how well-meaning scientists wound up causing catastrophe.  The visual effects were extraordinary, with Andy Serkis delivering an incredible performance as the young, intelligent Ape Caesar who would eventually lead the ape uprising.  But while the visual effects were impressive, the film succeeded because of the seriousness with which the story was told and the strength of the emotional through-line of Caesar’s loss of innocence.

While Rise of the Planet of the Apes stood on its own and certainly worked as a done-in-one story, I was eager to see the series continue.  Fox and new director Matt Reaves have succeeded in crafting a magnificent follow-up.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes was great, but Dawn is superior to the first installment in almost every measure, with only a few problems with the ending keeping the film short of magnificence.

Dawn takes place ten years after the end of Rise.  Most of mankind has been wiped out by the global pandemic unleashed at the end of Rise.  Caesar and the apes have established a peaceful community for themselves in the forests of California, and they have not seen a human being in years.  But this tranquility is broken when a group of humans stumble upon the apes’ domain.  It seems that an enclave of surviving humans has succeeded in coming together and creating their own small community in the ruins of San Francisco.  But with power and fuel running out, they have hatched a plan to try to repair an electricity-generating dam.  Unfortunately, this dam lies within the apes’ territory, bringing the two communities into contact.  Leaders on both sides make tentative attempts to work together peacefully, but fear and mistrust on both sides seems poised to lead to tragedy.

There are echoes in the film’s story of the fifth and final original Apes film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.  But for the most part, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes stands on its own as an original story.  Whereas Rise had lots of little nods and winks to the original films (we hear a number of the most famous lines, we see the Icarus launch on a news broadcast), Dawn eschews all of that, choosing instead to focus on telling its own story, a tough, tragic piece of speculative science fiction.  I am staggered by the bravery on display by this choice.  Yes, this is a franchise film, but it has the energy and boldness of a piece of original science fiction, and the film’s strong focus on the emotional core of the story results in a powerful piece of work.

(OK, there are a FEW nods to the original Apes films to be found in Dawn, but they are very subtle.  We hear the familiar “Ape Shall Not Kill Ape” refrain, and am I alone in feeling that the design of the face of Caesar’s son, Blue Eyes, was designed to resemble the look of Roddy McDowell’s makeup from the original films?)

Whereas Rise of the Planet of the Apes had an extensive cast of human leads surrounding Andy Serkis as the young ape Caesar, Dawn to my delight focuses primarily on the apes.  The first long chunk of the film doesn’t feature a single human being at all.  Instead, we are introduced (and in some cases re-introduced, since many of these characters return from Rise) to the apes who will make up the main cast of the film.  There is Caesar, of course, and his son Blue Eyes.  We see Maurice and Rocket (both returning from Rise) and Rocket’s son Ash, a close friend of Blue Eyes’.  Rise hinted at more in store for the scarred, fierce-looking ape Koba, and I was pleased that Koba has a huge role in this film, representing the philosophical opposite position to that of Caesar.  Caesar is tough and strong, but also willing to trust and, when the humans re-appear, he is willing to attempt to coexist with them.  But Koba, scarred both physically and emotionally from the tests and torture he endured at the hands of the human scientists, fears and hates the humans.  As amazing a character as Caesar is in the film, I loved Koba even more. What a magnificent portrait of a villain.  Koba does terrible things in the course of the film, but I found him to be a sympathetic and pitiable character.  Forget the fact that he is an ape and brought to life by astounding CGI and performance capture.  This is a great performance and a wonderful nuanced, tragic character.

I love that the film’s focus is on the divide between Caesar’s viewpoint and that of Koba’s.  There’s a lot going on in the film, and certainly there are other story lines and other characters with their own arcs.  But this is the main dramatic focus of the film’s story.  And this philosophical and moral debate at the heart of the film is what elevates Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to the level of great, classic science-fiction — like the best of the original Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and the original Planet of the Apes.  This story is set in a post-apocalyptic world with talking apes, but this is a tale with a lot to say about our life on planet Earth, right here, right now.

I really can’t say enough about the visual effects achievement that all of the apes in this film represent.  There are many ape characters, and each one not only looks 100% visually convincing, but even more than that, each ape has his/her own design and characterization.  I was never at all confused as to which ape was which.  That is an extraordinary accomplishment.  (Consider, on the other side of the spectrum, Michael Bay’s abominable Transformers films, where it is absolutely impossible to tell any of the robot characters apart from one another.)  Andy Serkis and all of the performers, enhanced and assisted by an army of visual effects artists, have achieved something absolutely extraordinary here.  I am in awe.

The human characters are all good.  Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Kodi Smitt-McPhee, Gary Oldman and others all do fine, solid work.  Part of me wishes we spent a little more time with these characters to flesh them each out a little more — particularly Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, whose role felt particularly under-cooked to me —  although on the other hand I think it is absolutely right that the film’s focus was on the apes, with the humans all in supporting roles.

I want to discuss the film’s ending, so there are some SPOILERS  ahead.  Beware.

If I have one small complaint with the film it is with the ending.  Although there’s no question that the ending is dour, I was geared up to expect a much greater tragedy at the end.  Perhaps because of the Apes films’ history of incredibly downbeat endings.  Perhaps also because I was expecting the film’s title to be taken more literally.  In the original Planet of the Apes film, the humans were mostly extinct, and what humans still lived were hunted and caged by the apes.  With this film being called Dawn of the Planetof the Apes, I expected to see the transition between the film’s opening — in which both humans and apes existed in their own communities — to an ending in which the humans really were destroyed.  I also expected a more substantial defeat of Ceaser’s viewpoint, since peaceful co-existence with the humans doesn’t seem to be a creed the apes followed in the original Planet of the Apes.

While bad things certainly happen in the film — and the ape assault on the human conclave is truly horrifying, a bravura sequence of film-making — the film’s end didn’t represent as dramatic a change from the status quo at the start of the film as I had expected.  This one community of humans is destroyed, yes, but all the humans are released from their cages, many humans survive, Caesar survives, etc. etc.   We see substantial changes for this small area, but not a large change for the status quo of the planet Earth.  (There are a few lines of dialogue that indicate that this skirmish will lead to a larger military response from the surviving humans, but we never see that happen in the film.)  I dunno, on the one hand I was relieved that nothing too horrible ultimately happened to the characters I had grown to love.  On the other hand, this is now two movies in which the Planet of the Apes has been sort of beginning, but not quite.  (I had the same complaint for the last three Daniel Craig James Bond movies — each one feels like it’s still in prequel/origin mode, with the ending always saying look, NOW he is the James Bond we know, only for the next film to take a step back and also wind up telling more of his origin.)  Maybe I just need to get used to the idea that perhaps the film-makers or the studio have a longer-term plan for these Apes films, and they want to stretch this story out for several more films until things really get to the situation in which things were at the start of the original Planet of the Apes.  If the films continue to be at this high a level of quality, then I have no problem with a multi-film series that only gradually transitions into the world we saw in 1968’s Planet of the Apes.  But for now I can’t help but feeling like this film’s ending was a tad anticlimactic.

Still, the prospect of future Apes films that will continue this story is hardly a cause for concern.  And other than my minor issues with the ending, I was blown away by this film.  What a delight it is to see this franchise taken so seriously.  Bravo to everyone involved in this film.  I can’t wait to see where things go from here.  (Allow me to suggest that the film-makers consider Devin Faraci of badassdigest.com’s sage advice on the five things he would like to see in the next Apes film.  I agree wholeheartedly with all of his recommendations.)  I also have to note here at the end that, while I complained at the beginning of this post that Rise of the Plane of the Apes was a stupid title (and, while Dawn is a better title, it is silly, as Mr. Facari notes, that both rebooted Apes films have basically had the SAME title), I LOVE that they have been sticking with the same title structure of the original films (“something something Planet of the Apes”), and I also am tickled that they’re still using the same font/logo for Planet of the Apes.  You may laugh, but I love the respect this shows for the original films, even though these two new films have rebooted the story.

This is an incredible piece of science fiction, not to mention a kick-ass Planet of the Apes film.  What more could I want?  Bring on the next one.

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