Forty-six years after the original Franklin J. Schaffner film we arrive at Matt Reeve’s latest incarnation, hot on the heels of Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction(a film recently memorably described on Twitter as one you can recreate in the comfort of your own home by “putting a copy of FHM and a microwave in a washing machine”), and a film that commandingly proves the Summer Blockbuster can be one of kinetic escapism as well as containing meditative, literary narrative, full of compelling characters and motivation.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up ten years after the events depicted in Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A re-tooled graphic similar to the one that played over Rise’s end credits shows the spread of the virulent Simian Flu around the world. Civilisation has collapsed save for the few percent of the population that have proved genetically immune to the outbreak. The apes now live in a commune in the Muir Woods, encased in the Eden-like environment of luscious foliage, fresh-flowing streams and the reassuring fortification of giant redwood trees. Caesar, we see, has been busy. Haematologically empowered by the original ALZ-112 drug seen in Rise, he and others have given birth to a new generation of hyper-intelligent apes. Rudimentary edicts are scrawled onto the stone wall of the apes’ forum (“Ape Shall Not Kill Ape” among them) and they communicate using the sign language James Franco’s Will Rodman taught the young Caesar, who has in turn taught the others. Amongst his own kind, Caesar rarely speaks in the human tongue, but when he does, the effect is devastating.
We’ve grown up in an age when it’s possible to realise anything our imagination concocts but rarely has the technology been employed to create such a palpable sense of character. Weta Digital have surely outperformed themselves to the point where virtually all visible seams between reality and artifice have been eradicated. Very occasionally, there might be the briefest moment in a scene in which an ape doesn’t land or clamber with the mass with which we might expect him to, but this is but carping, for the apes, as well as sharing most of our DNA, now share our reverential presence upon the screen. The CGI is, of course, only half the story. As a seismic shift from mo-capping in a self-contained and regulated ‘volume’ to real-life outdoor locations is, it’s still Andy Serkis’ performance that triumphs. Naysayers who perhaps denounce Serkis’ craft as “not real acting” certainly have a lot to answer for. Even supporters might get hung up on awards and adulations, but Serkis’ portrayal of Caesar succeeds in a far more fundamental way. As our primary empathic connection with the film, we understand what a quandary he lives. Loyal to his taxonomy but possessing of features that at once upgrade his species while simultaneously being characteristic of untrustworthy and self-destructive humans, Caesar has a tricky time even commanding his own.
The first half of the film concerns softly-spoken Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his medic partner Ellie (Keri Russell), and withdrawn Son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) heading away from the ruins of city and into deep into prohibited ape territory, for there lies a hydroelectric generator at a dam that could provide the answer to the human’s dwindling fuel supplies. This first hour then is essentially a peace negotiation with both sides bearing potentially enabling leaders and suspicious, treacherous deputies. There is, predictably, enticingly, much in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for us to map onto the world in which we live far from the cinema auditoriums. That trust is earned. That great leaps of faith are sometimes required to attain unity. That, as The Wire, House of Cards or Game of Thrones has shown us, there will always be people behind the scenes ready to juke the stats, seek a coup, and usurp a king. That an armistice between warring sides is the most fragile of things. That conflict is perhaps, worryingly, inevitable. It all sounds like hard work coming from a Summer Blockbuster but, wondrously, Serkis manages to convey all this is Caesar’s eyes. His measured breathing as he looks at his enemies, deciding whether to make that pivotal extension of trust.
Ultimately, and as the trailers have shown or you might have guessed, when war comes, it’s not pretty. There are no heroic charges into battle or defiant holdings of the frontline. It’s ugly and chaotic and every ape or human that falls is a life taken that’s keenly felt by the viewer. Yet somehow, while it’s unsurprising that the humans break out their armoury’s weapons with such urgency, it’s much more troubling to see the apes’ decrees crumble. Maybe it’s because we feel culpable. Yes, from us Caesar has learnt empathy, kindness and loyalty, but Koba, the ape who murdered Jacobs at the end of the previous film, has retained all our hatred, malice, and distrust. Interesting too is the depiction of Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, nominally the human survivors’ leader. He’s less concerned with the wonder of talking animals and more about the preservation of his species. A brief scene in which he swipes through his iPad at photos of loved ones hints at a backstory probably left on the cutting room floor, and this is a shame, as another more fully rounded human character in addition to Malcolm wouldn’t have gone amiss.
So Dawn of the Planet of the Apes kind of depresses then. Surely it’s a far cry from the heroic bombast and bluster of Marvel – or indeed Hasbro – offerings. But then again, so it should. Matt Reeves undoubtedly knows his way around an incendiary action-scene, but – boldly – earmarks vast amounts of time to the quieter scenes of communication that build the foundation for his scholastic, almost Classical approach to cerebral storytelling and narrative. Rise was a great film, but the differences between that and its successor couldn’t be greater. Dawn is an altogether different animal. It instructs, provokes, and dares to respect its audience’s intelligence. It resists formulaic narrative architecture in favour of heavyweight thematic content and is all the better for it. What a surprise then, given the franchise’s mid-section sag, that as it stands, it should be bookended by two masterpieces.