STORY WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
No one could blame you if you had sworn off the whole “Planet of the Apes” franchise. You would certainly have had ample reason to do so.
The original 1968 film was an adaptation of the French novel “La Planète des singes,” by Pierre Boulle. Starring Charlton Heston, it was a memorable work, replete with a haunting denouement. Then came a succession of four schlocky sequels, which became progressively worse. It didn’t help matters that the film also spawned a live action and then an animated television series, that further tarnished its pedigree.
Some hailed director, Tim Burton, as a potential savior of the franchise. However, his 2001 remake of the original, with Mark Wahlberg in the lead, was horrendous. Audiences cringed at the scenes with Helena Bonham Carter, a chimpanzee scientist, which crackled with sexual tension. Don’t do it — Marky Mark!
When you have a once valuable franchise that has been driven into the ground by a series of misfires, what is the solution? How about inviting the public to engage in collective amnesia and pretend the prior films never happened?
Mirabile dictu! “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a 2011 reboot of the franchise. It starred James Franco as a research scientist and Andy Serkis as Caesar, a baby chimpanzee, he adopts. The film garnered favorable reviews from incredulous critics, earned more than $480 million in global box office, and an Oscar nomination for its impressive special effects.
Given the commercial success of its immediate precursor, a follow-up was inevitable. What comes as a surprise — no a shock — is how truly outstanding “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” turns out to be.
If your understandable reluctance kept you away from the reboot, don’t despair. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” provides you with a pre-credits prologue that will fill you in.
In “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” scientists in the San Francisco-based Gen-Sys Laboratories were developing a viral vaccine, designed to cure Alzheimer’s disease in humans. They used chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos as experimental subjects. At the film’s rousing conclusion, the apes escaped en masse from the research facility and stormed across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Then, the ALZ-113 experimental virus mutated. This triggered a pan-global flu. Only one in 500 of the world’s human population survived it. Just to put this into context, historians estimate that, back in the 14th century, the dreaded Bubonic plague wiped out approximately a third of our species.
After the passage of a decade, the surviving San Francisco human contingent is living in primitive and isolated squalor. They are suffering from depleted resources and wonder whether there are any other pockets of human survivors on the planet.
As the film kicks off in earnest, we are greeted by the piercing gaze of a chimpanzee. As the camera pulls back, it turns out to be Caesar (Andy Serkis once again). Now mature, he has emerged as the universally respected leader of this colony of apes. The apes have found an ecological niche in the Muir Woods, just north of San Francisco. They have made extraordinary evolutionary progress. This includes mastering the rudiments of reading, writing, arithmetic, and speech. In addition, some of them have become skilled equestrians and wield weapons.
We witness a carefully orchestrated stratagem in which the apes hunt down a rampaging herd of elk. When Caesar and his son, River (Nick Thurston) are recovering one of the slain quarry, they are attacked by a giant grizzly bear. Koba (Toby Kebbell), a hyper-agile, super strong bonobo, comes to their rescue, jumping headlong through the air to dispatch the ursine predator with a spear.
This is one of the film’s litany of exhilarating vignettes. It also reintroduces the character of Koba. Although Caesar was born in the laboratory, he was lovingly raised by a human. His jaundiced perspective on the human race as an entity is tempered by his relationship with one of its members. By contrast, Koba bears the physical and psychological scars of being abused in cruel scientific experiments. Understandably, he is consumed with unalloyed hatred towards all humans.
The humans and apes have had no interface for years. All this changes when a handful of humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) ventures into the forest. They are hoping to power up the O’Shaughnessy Dam to provide desperately needed electricity.
However, one of his subordinates, the ape-hating Carver (Kirk Acevedo) panics and shoots a young chimpanzee. In a harrowing scene, the humans are surrounded by a band of enraged apes. Before they can kill the vastly outnumbered humans, Caesar intervenes. He spares the lives of these interlopers, but sternly dictates that they never again intrude into the apes’ sanctuary.
Caesar harbors deep-seated doubts about the sincerity of humans. However, he advocates the pragmatic approach of remaining detached from them and avoiding all contact. By contrast, the more bellicose Koba advocates a pre-emptive attack on the dwindling human colony. Prompted by these profound philosophical differences and Koba’s thirst for power, he emerges as a rival for Caesar’s leadership over the apes.
Through adroit use of narrative mirroring, the humans experience a similar struggle over how to deal with this inter-species conflict. While Malcolm exhorts a conciliatory approach, other humans like Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Carver propound all-out warfare. So, the same debate rages in both human and ape societies.
For his eponymous role in “Lincoln,” Daniel Day-Lewis rightfully received critical accolades and a Best Actor Oscar. Andy Serkis’ portrayal of a statesman-like figure is no less impressive. Serkis inhabited Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, then “The Hobbit.” He augmented this gnarled homunculus by playing King Kong in the Peter Jackson remake and Captain Haddock in Steven Speilberg’s “Tge Adventures of Tin Tin.” Serkis became the go-to guy for casting agents to portray any motion capture character. It is true that Serkis’ performances are enhanced with a technological overlay. However, all the nuanced facial expressions originate with the actor. While some may scoff at the notion, he is worthy of Academy Award consideration for this film.
Matt Reeves has inherited the directorial reins of the franchise. Previously, he earned plaudits at the helm of monster film, “Cloverfield” and vampire flick, “Let Me In.” Reeves displayed a technical expertise and artistry, which elevated both films above genre status. Here, Reeves skillfully applies his talents to a film, which with a significantly larger budget. Reeves’ directorial skill is evident in fashioning a film that is high-minded, even contemplative, yet never compromised in its pacing. As a consequence, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” can not be dismissed as a generic sci-fi action film.
For this film, husband and wife team. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who penned the screenplay for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” are joined by Mark Bomback (“Wolverine’). Their propitious collaboration yields a well-crafted script.
The technical values are superb. This is the first time that motion capture technology has been used in an outside environment, rather than in the cloistered confines of a studio. The special effects by Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon are eye-popping and devoid of a single scene that suggests artifice. The lustrous cinematography by Michael Seresin, evocative score by Michael Giacchino, production design by James Chinlund, along with the crisp editing by William Hoy and Stan Salfas all enhance the film’s narrative arc.
It would be hard to surpass this film’s panoply of set pieces. Witness the exhilarating battle royal between humans and apes. In it, the attacking apes are initially repelled by heavy firepower emanating from San Francisco. Then, a horseback Koba rushes headlong into fortified enemy positions. Shooting an Uzi with each hand, he rallies the retreating apes. Could Rambo do any better?
The film captures a well-honed sense of time and place in the ape-ocalyptic near future. The opening montage adroitly merges faux documentary footage with actual shots of NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama to convey verisimilitude. Simultaneously, the film also provides an excellent overview on the process of evolution. Here, humans have regressed to the epoch, which antedated advanced technology. Meanwhile, courtesy of being inoculated with the experimental vaccine, the non-human primates have experienced accelerated evolution. As a consequence, for them, what took humans millennia to achieve has been compressed into a mere ten years.
The film compels the viewer to re-examine the assumption that the perpetual planetary primacy of the human species is somehow preordained and immutable. Considering how humans have desecrated the planet, do we even deserve to be its stewards?
Chocked full of action and novel ideas, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a viscerally exciting and conceptually provocative triumph.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
***½ PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language) 130 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose.com.