I love it when a sequel turns out to be a whole lot better than it needs to be. Many, many times, us Movie-Lovers have been bent over the creative barrel and screwed raw by the studio’s insatiable need to add even MORE of our earnings to their Scrooge McDuck-like oceans of cash. A hit film, especially if it’s success is somewhat surprising, naturally enters ‘Inevitable Sequel Territory’ and, as we’ve seen in the past, often results in a lazy, rushed script and filming schedule, in order to hit a predetermined release date; usually to capitalize on the residual good-will garnered by the original. Not all of them end up sucking, but VERY often, they do pale in comparison to the work that spawned them. Well…I’m happy to report that this is NOT the case here.
I remember being initially skeptical when the ‘first’ one, ‘The Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ (2011) hit the theaters…especially since my mind hadn’t yet managed to delete the atrociously lame imagery stemming from Tim Burton’s surprisingly shitty attempt to ‘reboot’ the ‘Planet of the Apes’ name, back in 2001. However, I came away from ‘Rise’ with a lil more faith restored in the Hollywood Movie Making Machine, as it was clear that some effort had been invested into the Written Word that would guide the film into fruition. The acting was solid, especially the mo-cap that was used to bring the apes to ‘life’, the CG worked, and the action scenes were appropriately grand. The film closed on the image of the newly intelligent and determined apes, let by the Alpha-Ape ‘Caesar’ (Andy Serkis), vanishing into the woods outside of San Francisco.
‘The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ picks up several years after the end of “Rise’. Right off the bat, we’re shown how ‘Simian Flu’, stemming from events in the first film, spread throughout the globe via commercial air travel. This sickness burned through the human population like wild-fire and, with the exception of a tiny portion of the population that seem naturally immune, reduced our numbers to the brink of extinction. We then catch up with ‘Caesar’ and his army / society of simians as they go about living their lives in the forests that we saw them disappear into previously. We see how they communicate, hunt, care for their young and each other, while maintaining something of a hospitable balance with Nature around them. After a perilous deer hunt that nearly claims the life of ‘Caesar’s teenage son ‘Blue Eyes’ (Nick Thurston), we watch as the defiant ape-lad and his best friend ‘Ash’ (Doc Shaw) suddenly stumble upon the first human they’ve seen in years. Unfortunately, this character ‘Carver’ (Kirk Acevedo) is a trigger-happy xenophobe (who was ‘walking point’ for a small party) who almost instantly reacts in the most human of ways…with a drawn handgun and a hastily squeezed trigger. This brings ‘Caesar’ and the apes into contemptuous and understandably weary contact with the small group of human explorers, led by ‘Malcolm’ (Jason Clarke), that have seemingly invaded their territory. In reality, these humans had no idea that they would encounter a blossoming society of intelligent simians, as their focus was on reaching a nearby dam, with the intention of restoring much-needed power to the remaining human population residing in what’s left of San Francisco. From this point, despite the best efforts at co-operation between ‘Malcolm’ and ‘Caesar’, things begin to spiral out of control as bad luck and mistrust from members of both sides work towards all-out war.
First off, the writing here is solid. I remarked to my girlfriend as we were watching that it was SO nice to see a film where it was evident that the script was given the respect and time that it deserved in order to be done correctly. We are shown clearly what’s at stake for all parties involved and the motivations behind some of the character actions, even the ‘villains’, make sense. Logical tensions and conflicts arise as desperation on the part of the humans lead them to break the (admittedly fair) terms laid on them by the surprisingly assertive, but (mostly) understanding collection of spear-armed simians, who only want to be left alone to live their lives in the forested mountains. Story-wise, the script hits the points needed to keep the action moving at a fat-free pace. Events occur throughout the run-time that had the benefit of ‘set-up’ and that, in conjunction with the ‘out-in-the-open’ character motivations, really helped pull the overall narrative together.
The Acting is very good…for a post-apocalyptic story about a society of highly advanced monkeys. Like ‘Rise’, I found the most compelling sequences to be the ones focusing exclusively on the interactions of the ape characters. Some serious research seems to have been done on the lives and social behaviours of real-life simians, as I ‘bought’ the machinations of how they ‘worked’. The use of sign-language, coupled with bouts of limited speech and writing, really sold me on how such a society COULD potentially and theoretically exist, given the right catalyst. Director Matt Reeves (‘Let Me In’), and the Mo-Cap Performance Team, headed by mo-cap superstar Andy Serkis (‘King Kong’), put in the obvious effort to make sure we understood that we’re watching apes, not humans playing ‘Dress Up’ in ape guise. Despite my admiration for the top-notch ape portrayal, I can’t just overlook the humans characters either. Jason Clarke (‘Zero Dark Thirty’) brought a sympathetic ‘humanity’ to the character of ‘Malcolm’; a man who is caught in a difficult, high-stakes situation but resists resorting to base instincts (like declaring war) in the face of recognizing the historical significance of what they’ve seen and experienced with the apes. While we’re clearly supposed to see him as the mustache-twirling antagonist of the flick, Gary Oldman (‘Bram Stokers Dracula’) brings his own level of ‘humanity’ to ‘Dreyfus’, the former soldier-turned-guardian of the dwindling human population in San Francisco. Instead of him simply being The Bad Guy, we get to know enough about him that we see the reasoning behind some of his more destructive actions. If anything, the Kirk Acevedo character, ‘Carver’, is the more ‘honest’ Bad Guy, with his sneaky, paranoid actions putting ALL progress between humans and apes into a tragic downward spiral. Keri Russell (‘Mission Impossible 3’) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (‘The Road’), as ‘Malcolm’s Wife and Son respectively, help round out the Family dynamic on the human side and they both do what they need to do, to service the script and their characters.
Being that this narrative hones in on the disintegration of the potentially fruitful relationship between Human and Ape, naturally much action ensues as things go from bad to worse. The action scenes are handled well, especially at the climax where the deceptive ape and human elements that led to the impending disaster are dealt with in a resoundly spectacular fashion. There’s also a terrific ‘Ape-on-Human’ gun battle where intimidating scores of blood-thirsty apes storm the human stronghold on horseback, brandishing all manner of automatic weaponry. The editing and sound design really added a lot of ‘punch’ to these sequences, and the scene was underscored by a palpable sense of desperation and tragedy on both sides.
If I had to dig up a complaint, it would have to be regarding the musical score. A number of times, I caught what sounded a helluva lot like a Xylophone in the mix, and it just sounded…wrong. Silly almost. It struck me as being something of a retro ‘throw-back’ the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ films (an entirely possible reason for that instrument’s inclusion, despite not remembering if it was ever used in the ‘original’ flicks), and I found it somewhat distracting.
All in all, ‘The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ was a very well thought-out and constructed continuation of the new ‘Apes’ saga and is hopefully indicative of the potential quality of any upcoming installments of this franchise. The acting is solid, the characters (especially the apes) are compelling, the stakes are high and make sense in the overall context, and it’s damn pretty to look at. If you liked ‘Rise’, you’ll be more than content with how this sequel plays out and adds to what’s been established. This is a good flick…and I very much recommend it. Check it out.
“Ape not kill ape.”