If ever there was a movie series that has reaped the benefit of modern technology, it’s Planet of the Apes. While the makeup in the original 1968 move was quite impressive for its day, you never forgot that you were watching actors in heavy latex prosthetics. The movie’s theme and its killer twist overcame the prosthetics – and allowed the film to become a five-movie series. There were some makeup improvements in the Tim Burton reboot, but the rest of the film was such a mess you hardly noticed them, and it looked like the series was dead. But then came 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, using motion capture technology and the genius of Andy Serkis’ embodiment of Caesar. For the first time, the intelligence-enhanced apes were believable, and fascinating. The success of Rise led to the newest film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
The end of Rise foreshadowed a nasty plague caused by the Gen-Sys anti-Alzheimer’s drug ALZ 113, the treatment that gave Caesar (Serkis) and the other apes their intelligence. In a simple but effective sequence, the plague – called the Simian Flu because of its tie to ape testing – is tracked to its final devastation of mankind. Ten years have passed since Caesar led his apes north of San Francisco to Muir Woods where they set up their own society. During a hunt for food, Caesar and another of the original tribe, Koba (Toby Kebbell) must save Caesar’s son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) from a rampaging bear. They return to the settlement where Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) presents him with a new child. Cornelia, though, shows signs of illness.
Later while walking through the woods, Blue Eyes and a friend come face to face with a human. The man’s both armed and paranoid about apes, and he shoots Blue Eyes’ friend out of fear. The man is part of a small group under the leadership of Malcolm (Jason Clarke) that wants to find and restore a hydro power plant to give electricity to an outpost of humans still living in San Francisco. Caesar at first refuses the request, forcefully telling the leader of the outpost, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) to forget the plan. But Malcolm, along with his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his partner Ellie (Keri Russell), return to the forest and are able to change Caesar’s mind. While they make progress toward peaceful co-existence, both Dreyfus and Koba prepare for war.
Jason Clarke has a wonderful ability to communicate both physical strength as well as sensitive intelligence. His role as Dan, the CIA agent in charge of enhanced interrogations in Zero Dark Thirty, played up how quietly imposing he can be, while in Dawn he is the hope for understanding, following in the footsteps of James Franco’s role in Rise. Oldman is effective as always as the less-than-trusting Dreyfus, while Russell and Smit-McPhee provide good support for the story.
Toby Kebbell’s Koba rises almost to the level of Shakespeare’s Iago or Richard III. He’s fearsome, and the physical manifestation is truly frightening, yet he’ll pull on a mask and act the fool when he must. The moment when he drops the mask, though, is starkly powerful. A strong antagonist is needed to make a story memorable, and Kebbell provides that strength.
Caesar remains the central character, a leader trying to balance power and mercy. While the embodiment is incredible, what sets it apart is when the camera focuses on Serkis’ eyes and you read his thoughts. While he’ll never be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar – the prejudice against technology is too strong – in both Rise and Dawn Serkis does Oscar-caliber work. Serkis continues to be busy, with Avengers: Age of Ultron coming next year to be followed by a new Tintin movie as well as Star Wars 7.
Director Matt Reeves had worked in television (including several episodes of “Felicity” with Keri Russell) before moving to the big screen with Cloverfield and Let Me In. While those movies were a solid start, with Dawn he reaches blockbuster success. He’s assisted by production designer James Chinlund (The Avengers) who creates a post-human world where nature has taken charge again. Also, one particular kudo to the movie for not destroying the Golden Gate Bridge as a cheap post-apocalyptic visual. It’s become so common (Godzilla destroyed it two months ago) that leaving the bridge intact stands out.
With Rise and now Dawn, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, assisted by Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, Unstoppable) on the new film, have not just rebooted the series but have completely reimagined it, adding depth and emotional heart that was absent in the original movies. Dawn made more in its initial weekend than Rise, and it has topped the weekend box office for two weeks straight. According to IMDb, another movie is in the works with Reeves directing as well as collaborating on the script with Bomback. I’m looking forward to seeing it.