George Orwell had it right when he wrote, “Four legs good, two legs bad.” This “Animal Farm” axiom is the driving theme behind “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which wastes no time in reminding us that no matter how hard you try, you cannot escape the dangerous and corrupting nature of mankind.
Released July 11, the movie, directed by Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”), is a sequel to Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 franchise reboot “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Rare for most follow-ups, this installment exceeds its predecessor in almost every way imaginable with its seamless special effects, superb drama, and an emotionally complex and dark storyline that you wouldn’t initially expect from a big budget sci-fi summer blockbuster.
Luckily for lazy viewers, an opening sequence provides all the necessary exposition and repercussions from the first movie’s plot: a virus known as “Simian Flu” has brought the human race to the brink of extinction (“12 Monkeys,” anyone?) while ape-kind has only benefitted, becoming smarter and forming their own organized horse-riding society in the rain-soaked forests of Northern California. Meanwhile, a small outpost of people fights for survival in the run-down urban jungle of San Francisco. But who really cares about them?
Despite a cast of A-list human characters, the apes are the greatest part of the movie. You won’t find any goofy-looking John Chambers make-up here. These simians are made from the best motion capture effects studio money can buy. A breathtaking opening scene of monkeys hunting deer from the tree tops will only strengthen the argument for the use of such technology in today’s movies.
Unlike most blockbusters, the effects don’t overpower the movie (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay), but they stand alone as an integral part of the film and its overall storytelling much like they did in “Avatar.”
You’ll almost feel like an anthropologist as you get in-depth looks into the civilization of genetically and intellectually superior apes. They’re peace-loving (“ape not kill ape” is their modus operandi) and led by Caesar, a chimp who was raised by humans (James Franco to be exact). Caesar is played by Andy Serkis, who made the case for motion capture years ago as Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies. Since then, he’s brought other compelling characters to life in the same way with “King Kong” and “The Adventures of Tin Tin.”
Caesar is no exception and Serkis plays him as the product of two worlds, discovering that ape ideals and human ideals aren’t as different as they once appeared to be. Seriously, this dude needs an Oscar nomination or at least a separate category for this line of performance. By the end, you may wonder how it was so easy to adore a monkey.
The rest of the apes are just as interesting, especially Caesar’s two closest advisors: Maurice and Koba, an orangutan and chimpanzee played by Karin Konoval and Toby Kebbell, respectively. Maurice is more of an intellectual, while Koba can only be described as a “damn dirty ape” that has a strong distrust of humans. You can’t really blame the guy because they kept him in cages and experimented on him before the simian revolution of the first movie. He’s a terrifying, unpredictable loose cannon and his shocking actions prove that the leap between ape and man isn’t very far. In sum, he has a tendency to go — forgive the horrid pun — total ape shit.
Still, it wouldn’t be fair to not recognize all the great actors in this movie who aren’t covered in fur. Gary Oldman (“RoboCop”) plays Dreyfus, the leader of the remaining humans, who, because he doesn’t think of the apes as capable of intelligence, goes a little bananas. Many people share his distrust and it isn’t hard to see why, since walking and talking apes may cause you to feel a bit uneasy.
Jason Clarke’s character, Malcolm, is the most rational-minded of the survivors, treating the apes with respect and forming a bond with Caesar. These actors give fine performances that are laced with convincing emotional backstories for their motivations, especially Clarke who is as intense here as he was in “Zero Dark Thirty.” But the more time you spend with man, the more you’d rather hang with the apes. After all, the humans are made out to be the dumb animals, bringing guns and ignorance to the party.
Things heat up when the humans encroach on ape territory in order to fix a dam and restore power to their settlement. The greatest suspense of the movie is watching the tensions between the two groups boil over into all-out war. The plot has everything you could ever want and all the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy: action, romance and betrayal. Michael Giacchino’s ominous score is the perfect complement, full of jungle beats that mirror his work on “Star Trek Into Darkness” and even a bit of John Williams’ from “Jurassic Park.”
The “Planet of the Apes” franchise has definitely come a long way since Charlton Heston crash-landed on Earth to find monkeys as the dominant species and the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand. Four tepid sequels and one unspeakable Tim Burton reboot later, the series has finally returned to the level of greatness that is associated with the one that started it all.
And like the 1968 original, a metaphor for racism and the Civil Rights Movement of the decade, “Dawn” contains a similar message: even intelligent beings are capable of evil, cruelty and intolerance. There’s still a lot of ground to cover and stories to be told before humans actually “blow it up,” but I for one welcome our new ape overlords with open arms.