“Evolution of the Planet of the Apes”

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell
Directed by Matt Reeves

Diehard fans of the five original “Planet of the Apes” movies – which came out between 1968 and 1973 (and the first of which still stands as one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time) – had every reason to be disappointed by Tim Burton’s ill-conceived reboot from 2001. So ten years later, who could blame them for still thinking “damn them all to hell” when 20th Century Fox went back to the drawing board for yet another reboot? Adding more fuel to the fire was that this time around, the apes would be completely computer-generated using the complex (and very expensive) performance capture process, rather than feature actors wearing makeup like the original films did.

As it turned out, those lowered expectations were a blessing in disguise, for not only did 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” catch everyone off guard when it turned out to be a really great movie that grossed $483 million worldwide; it was also one of the best films of the year. As directed by Rupert Wyatt and co-written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, it was smart, gripping and exciting, it featured a provocative story where the apes were the more sympathetic characters, and it took computer-generated special effects to a whole new groundbreaking level.

But now that the bar has been raised, so have expectations – and the budget. Coming three years after “Rise” (which cost $93 million to make), it’s brilliantly-directed, poetically-written and superbly-acted sequel “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (which cost $170 million) exceeds those expectations by improving upon its predecessor in just about every way. The story (once again written by Jaffa and Silver, along with Mark Bomback) is deeper, ambitious and morally-challenging to the extent that it depicts the apes and the humans as being far more alike than unalike, even though the apes have the physical advantage for being able to live under primitive circumstances. The result is a powerful, intense, epic and exciting blockbuster with brains, and the special effects have once again been taken to another game-changing level.

It’s been ten years since a devastating virus (dubbed the “simian flu”) wiped the human race off the face of the earth, leaving genetically advanced apes to rule as the dominant species. Led by the chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis), who led the ape revolt against the humans, the apes have evolved into a peaceful society in the Muir Woods just north of San Francisco. That peace is threatened by the arrival of human survivors, who are desperate to re-establish electrical power and need access to the dam near where the apes have built their village. The apes and the humans forge a fragile alliance, but how long will it last before the tension between them escalates into an all-out war?

Even though “Rise” was such a resounding critical and commercial success, there was some cause for concern when director Rupert Wyatt passed on directing “Dawn” rather than commit to a rushed production schedule to meet a July 2014 release date. But the film couldn’t be in better hands, since Matt Reeves – who previously directed 2008’s “Cloverfield” and 2010’s “Let Me In” (and is already committed to direct the third “Apes” installment) – carefully crafts both high tension and exciting action sequences. The first half of “Dawn” is made up of the former, while the second half is dominated by the latter, but that first half is far more compelling, since it artfully depicts a fascinating portrait of the ape culture, particularly how they communicate with each other through a mixture of sign language and their own dialect (subtitles fill in the blanks).

As with “Rise,” the most sympathetic character in “Dawn” is Caesar, brilliantly played by performance capture go-to guy Andy Serkis (who also “played” Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and King Kong in that giant-sized epic). After leading the charge against the humans, Caesar tries to empathize with the human survivors, much to the chagrin of his embittered right-hand ape Koba (played with potent, raging force by Toby Kebbell). Equally effective are the rational humans played by Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee, while Gary Oldman provides some menace as the human leader who’s too quick to pull the trigger in an effort to restore power to the city.

If “Rise” was something of a loose update of the fourth film (and best sequel) from the original series, 1972’s “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” then “Dawn” could be seen as a far superior update of the fifth (and last) installment, 1973’s “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.” Fans of those films will relish the sight of the apes riding horseback, while their ears will surely perk up during some of the music cues composed by Oscar-winner Michael Giacchino (“Up,” “Star Trek”), who periodically tips his hat to Jerry Goldsmith’s pioneering musical score from the original 1968 masterpiece.

But where these last two reboots are concerned, “Rise” had a more uplifting conclusion – well, uplifting for the apes, anyway. Their revolution built to a rousing payoff, and their victory felt like it was fully earned. By contrast, “Dawn” presents both sides with equal measure, since the good intentions of the few are sabotaged by ignorance, intolerance, fear and betrayal within their ranks, forcing moviegoers to make the more difficult choice of who to root for. It’s a bleaker moral conundrum that ends on a heartbreaking note, the effect of which is both haunting and packs a powerful emotional punch.

Will the apes and the humans learn how to co-exist in peaceful harmony? If not, which side will be left standing, if anyone is left standing at all? Either way, the superb “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” leaves the door wide open for the next installment, and as for what that could be, consider this: Remember the spacecraft that lifted off in “Rise” and vanished without a trace? What if, like in the original classic from 1968, the astronauts from that ship crash-landed back on Earth 2,000 years into the future, only to find a planet overrun by intelligent apes? Sure, it’s been done before, but so, to some extent, were these last two movies, and look how great they turned out.

-Scott Mantz