Here’s a good way to realize you are watching a great movie–by the time the movie is well into the action, you don’t even think of how good or bad the movie is, because you’re too in the moment. That’s how I felt about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which just might be the best summer blockbuster since Raiders of the Lost Ark.
A sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which I liked a lot, Dawn outdoes it in every way. Most of this is due to an extremely intelligent script by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, which, dare I say, even manages to be profound. Of course, a lot of credit goes to Matt Reeves, who manages to keep this thing from degenerating into a Michael Bay explosion fest, and the acting of Andy Serkis, who I will elaborate on below.
The film takes place ten years after the end of Rise. Most of humanity is dead, due to a disease that was tested on apes. Called the “Simian flu,” it spread around the world. Meanwhile, a colony of intelligent apes, those experimented on, live peacefully in the forest north of San Francisco. They have advanced, learning to use fire, domesticate animals, and build shelters. They are led by Caesar (Serkis), and have a strict moral code–“Ape Not Kill Ape.” (So they haven’t completely mastered English grammar).
Caesar and his friends think that mankind must be wiped out, but one day out hunting a pair of chimps stumble upon some humans, and one ape gets shot. The humans have survived the plague, living in a colony in Frisco. They are trying to see if a hydro-electric dam can still be used to generate electricity, so they can find out if there are any other surviving humans. Problem–the apes don’t want them around.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is, on a small scale, a primer on diplomacy and the folly of both man and ape to fuck things up by prejudice and stupidity. While watching, you feel a crushing sense of sadness at how things play out, feel embarrassed at being human, and also see how ape and human are pretty much alike. At one point Caesar says, “I thought ape better than human. Now I see we are alike.” Ouch.
Both sides have the good guy and the bad. For the humans, we have Jason Clarke and Keri Russell, who understand that the apes are to be reasoned with, while on the bad side we have Gary Oldman, who thinks they are just animals and is inclined to kill them. For the apes, Caesar is badly assisted by Koba, an ape who so maltreated in captivity that he hates humans, and accuses Caesar of loving them more than apes. This earns him a thrashing from Caesar.
The film is extremely rich. Not only is it gripping, but it thought-provoking. We can think of all sorts of real-life situations that the film alludes to, right up to the current headlines in Gaza, where two sides just can’t get along. There is also a scene that is daring in its execution. Koba, on a mission from the apes home, penetrates the humans’ home. In order to appear nonthreatening, he adopts typical chimp behavior, as if he was a circus animal. I thought of how many groups have resorted to cultural stereotypes, such as Stepin Fetchit or Charlie Chan, to assimilate. It’s a funny scene, but it has powerful depth.
I was impressed also that my bullshit detector didn’t go off much, given that it’s a movie about apes with superior intelligence. At one point I wondered why they didn’t smell humans who were hiding, but I see on a few web sites that the sense of smell of chimps has deteriorated over generations (just like it has in humans). There is a pretty whopping coincidence when Clarke finds just the ape he needs at the moment, but given the overall smartness of the script, I’m willing to forgive it.
In closing, I must comment on Andy Serkis, who is given top-billing. He is the actor who has now specialized in these motion capture roles, from Gollum to King Kong. There is never any question in the mind of the viewer that Caesar is a real ape, even if he is completely created out of computer effects. Serkis is masterful not only in moving like a chimp, but in his facial expressions. In fact, I was amazed that I had no trouble differentiating between the different apes, a testament to all the motion-capture actors.
My grade for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A.