SUB-GENRES: Thriller / Drama / Action
DIRECTED BY: Matt Reeves
WRITTEN BY: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, & Amanda Silver; Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle
PEW PEW: This film is insanely well-rounded, with more than enough action to satisfy ape fans.
CAT FOOD: The Planet of the Apes film series frequently dips its pen into the ink of social commentary and liberally applies it to in both the background and foreground of the pictures. This one tackles ethics and morality, both negative and positive prejudices, racism, war, and more.
There was no shortage of science fiction novels being published in the fifties and sixties, and many of them had powerful things to say about the world around their authors. While some of these novels went on to be adapted into film, many of them were too ambitious or bizarre to even attempt a faithful re-imagining. When French author Pierre Boulle (famous for The Bridge On the River Kwai) published La Planète des Singes (Monkey Planet) in 1963, it’s hard to believe anyone could picture a successful film coming out of it, with the limited production tools of the era, at least.
But blow me down, they did it. La Planète des Singes, a novel about a journalist’s experience on a distant planet populated by intelligent apes who wore suits and drove cars, and treated the less advanced humans like animals, went on to spawn eight feature films (with a ninth on the way next year), a live-action television series, a cartoon series, and a clandestine merchandising campaign that predates Star Wars’. So pull up a seat, cause over the next eight days, we’re going to talk about Planet of the Apes, easily one of the most profound and important science fiction film series’ in the genre’s rich history.
After a run of four under-budgeted sequels in the seventies and a lousy remake in 2001, the Planet of the Apes franchise badly needed a new direction. We got that new direction in 2011 with the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the first in a new series with an entirely new continuity that focuses on the origin of a brand new planet of the apes. I thought Rise was incredible and I waited, not daring to get excited but still getting excited anyway, for the sequel to come along and attempt to take this new fascinating narrative further. I didn’t think anything would top Rise and I braced myself for a terrible sequel like the original film got in 1970. Imagine my surprise when the sequel actually turned out to be an improvement!
In 2014, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes at last treated me to the euphoric theatrical experience I’d always wanted with a planet of the apes film. I had the distinct feeling that I was watching a new, savagely exciting and boldly contemplative classic being born into the Planet of the Apes world.
Where Rise of the Planet of the Apes drew bits of inspiration from the 1972 apes origin story Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn draws logically from Conquest’s direct sequel, Battle for the Planet of the Apes. In my opinion, this was the most perfect direction this sequel could have taken, as I always felt Battle was a great concept undermined by a feeble budget.
Many years have passed since the simian flu (born of the ALZ-113 drug from the last film) and destructive fighting killed off the vast majority of the world’s human population. The now intelligent apes, ruled by their powerful and benevolent chimpanzee leader Caesar, live outside of San Fransisco in a fledgling society. Just when Caesar and his allies begin to wonder if humans have indeed become extinct, humans emerge in ape territory looking to repair a dam. The dam, which would bring power to what remains of the human city and the survivors that huddle there, is located far too close to the ape village for Caesar’s comfort.
When Caesar’s reason is appealed to by the peaceful humans, he lets them do their work on the dam, angering Caesar’s aggressive bonobo ally Koba. Complications soon arise which lead to a plot by Koba to assassinate Caesar, and the prospect of all out war with the terrified human city dwellers. As you can see, there are a lot of similarities to Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Finally, though, we can witness the gut-wrenching conflict that Battle proposed but with a very respectable budget.
The psychiatric profile we got on Caesar in the last film pays off for us in this film. It’s easy to identify with his story as we spent much of the last movie getting into his head. No matter what anybody else thinks of him at any given time in the movie, Caesar still presents as a titan of a hero. He’s more distinguished this time round, but the importance of his position weighs heavily on him. The brilliant writing carries over from Rise to Dawn where it becomes meatier still, rife with triumph and tragedy. Underscoring how beautiful the writing is, not everyone makes it to the end of the picture, but its killer narrative is still one focused on growth.
As the human population has been mostly annihilated, the cast has changed considerably between films. Andy Serkis still takes the triumphant lead as a wise and hardened leader with his own family, a wife and two sons. Returning from the first film are Karin Konoval and Terry Notary as Caesar’s closest allies, Maurice and Rocket respectively. The belligerent and vengeful Koba, who becomes the film’s chief antagonist, is played brilliantly by Toby Kebbell.
On the human side of things, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Kodi Smit-McPhee respectively play Malcom, Ellie, and Alexander, a family who very slowly gain Caesar’s trust. The exceptionally talented Gary Oldman plays Dreyfus, who governs the human survivors in the ruins of San Fransisco. While not directly an antagonist, Dreyfus’ desperation gets the best of him and he does present a decent enough challenge to our protagonists. I will say that these new human characters, while decently cast, are unfortunately not as memorable as James Franco, Freida Pinto, and John Lithgow’s characters were. A small fault to be sure.
I’d say that, since Dawn of the Planet of the Apes closely follows the outline of what was set down in 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, it has a great deal more to say than Rise of the Planet of the Apes did. The parallels are fantastic and themes are explored that arouse serious amounts of contemplation in the more astute viewer. For instance, we still get the internal conflict within Caesar as he must battle not only desperate human adversaries, but also barbaric apes led by his former ally Koba, who graduates from his silent and mysterious backseat role in the first film, much like Aldo did from Conquest to Battle. Koba’s betrayal, much the same as Aldo’s, forces Caesar to reconsider his judgement of all apes being his brothers. Also as explored in 1973, the apes are capable of incredible evil, just as many humans are capable of reason, compassion, and nobility.
I’m really quite fond of several powerful moments in the film. My favourites include the curious Maurice and the young Alexander reading a book together under the shadow of an imminent war, and a scene at the end where two characters thrust into a war against each other express their condolences that things couldn’t have worked out. Both scenes show off how pointless war really is, as the two sides don’t really want to fight each other, but they are forced to anyway, if only for their own survival.
It produces a terrible sinking feeling to understand that the most peaceful souls are still dragged into the undertow of war as more powerful forces clash beyond their control.
While Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is far more violent and unsettling than its predecessor, the narrative shows only what is absolutely necessary, leaving out many of the more graphic aspects of war. What results is a film that is just as engaging as Rise of the Planet of the Apes but with higher stakes that make the experience even more gripping and memorable.
This beautiful, often nightmarish thing takes the sadness and triumph of its predecessor and magnifies it to powerful effect. With all the contemplation this sequel begs, and with even more subtle allusions to the classic series, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is quite honestly the greatest Planet of the Apes movie released since, erm, nineteen sixty ape.