By Patrick B. McGuigan
Editor’s Note: This review of the second film in the ‘Planet of the Apes’ reboot appeared in The City Sentinel newspaper’s July 24, 2014 print edition; we offer it online for readers, as background for the latest film in the series, “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.”
The motion picture, “Dawn of The Planet of the Apes,” opens with glowing graphics and television-style news clips. This sequence lays out (even more powerfully than the closer for the first reboot, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (https://city-sentinel.com/2011/09/a-%E2%80%9Cre-boot%E2%80%9D-that-works-rise-of-the-planet-of-the-apes/) the spread of a virulent disease.
In a couple of minutes of superb film-making, a video montage sketches a horrific tale – a worldwide pandemic wiping out much of the human race. As seen from the Heavens, cluster of lights go out across the planet. Then, darkness covers the face of the earth.
“Dawn” is driven, even relentless. It is efficient, without a wasted moment, although time is allowed in dialogue and debate for characters to develop, taking on both edginess and endearment.
Taking apes and uncaring humans – a world of make-believe?
Yes, but one that speaks to us today.
From those initial credits, the story moves briskly into the forest.
Ten years have passed since the humans disappeared from the sight of the apes, who sometimes wonder if any are left.
Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads a spear-bearing hunting party of gorillas, chimps, and other simians. To stop and kill the prey they seek as food they use tactics evocative, in our world, of the first residents of the Great American Plains. A pincer’s movement drives their game to death, to provide sustenance for the tribe.
The apes communicate with sign language and sounds but without (initially) verbal speech as we recognize it.
The leader, Caesar, is strong and intuitive. His son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) is brave and foolhardy. The lad’s risk-taking brings confrontation with a huge bear.
Before hearts can settle from the frightfulness of the ape vs. bear fight, Blue Eyes and his friend Ash (Doc Shaw), while walking home, come upon a small corps of humans bearing arms. Leading the homo sapiens is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), accompanied by his wife, Ellie (Kerri Russell) and a small band of men (including his son Alexander, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Ash is shot but not killed. Caesar and his band of several dozen apes quickly rush to the scene. Malcolm attempts to communicate with Caesar, who barely manages to keep his troops from killing the intruders. He compels the humans to leave, shocking them when he makes his point in their language.
From there, things get even more dramatic.
A band of several hundred humans live in the ruins of San Francisco, hoping there are others out there who can be contacted. To do that via shortwave radio, they need power – the reason for Malcolm’s venture into the woods.
Led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), humans live in a new Dark Age, without means of mass communication. A quest for light – electrical power that might yet be drawn from an abandoned hydroelectric plant – drives their hopes for a better future, as oil supplies around the once-great city dwindle.
The apes live in what we know as the Muir Woods, in the hills above the Golden Gate Bridge.
We see Caesar’s friend Maurice (Karin Konoval) teaching. Pictographs, Egyptian-like, adorn the wall behind him, along with a few words of English, including “Ape shall not kill ape.” Caesar’s most loyal lieutenant is Rocket (Terry Notary); his wife is Cornelia (Judy Greer).
A strong supporting cast drives the story. Ms. Russell is beautiful and loving, her portrayal sympathetic. She bears the loss and heartache of the Plague, searching for a relationship with the boy Alexander and standing righteously by her man, Malcolm.
In a review, for Los Angeles Times film critic David L. Lulin offered this simple and spot-on insight about this story: “We are complicit in what happens to us.”
To be sure, s—t happens. No human (or ape) has real control of events that surround us. It’s how we handle those events that defines what kind of person (ape?) we really are. Life is not a lottery, but it is unfair.
This tale includes morally upright apes of all shades and varieties; same with humans. Yet this flick’s characters are played straight, with all the variety and complexity most of us see in any broad circle of friends, fellow congregants or co-workers. No cookie-cutters here.
In the tradition of grand science fiction, incredible events seem plausible.
Some remember the Superman film with Christopher Reeves, and the ad slogan: “You will believe a man can fly.” The most critical viewer, casual fan or dedicated film buff, will believe that in this alternative universe, apes communicate, and humans have disastrous failures to convey their meaning.
Caesar’s initial friend and eventual foe is Koba (Toby Kebell). Koba and Dreyfus, the human leader, are “bad.” Their mean streaks are rooted in furious responses to nightmares lived separately.
In the first film, Koba was subjected to experimentation by human scientists. He is scarred – literally in mind and body. Those researchers went a bridge too far. A test disease on apes provokes the killer pandemic.
Dreyfus is among the tiny percentage of humans who survived. He weeps at memories of his family. He battles to restore human dignity, but cannot see in Caesar someone who, like him, longs for the essentials: “Home. Family. Future.”
When war comes, it is awful; and effectively conveyed on the screen.
There is some hope at the dawn of a new day, tempered in the shock of recognition for “others” across the divide.
Matt Reaves directed the film, employing to powerful effect a musical score from Michael Giacchino which at times provokes memories of the “monolith” scenes in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Producers and writers have given us a story line not about apes, but about us. Their efforts are worthy and unusually profound for mass entertainment.
Still, in searching scrolling credits before and after the film, due homage could not be found for Pierre Boulle’s original novel (a satire, yet still the inspiration of the series that began in 1968). Creators of this production would not lessen themselves if they elevated for a few seconds the imaginative writer whose “bizarro world” invention started it all.
There is much in this new series different from the late 1960s movies, with the original starring Charlton Heston in his prime. However, there is enough subtle tribute that fans will raise their glasses to the fertile minds that gave us both.
This film is Rated PG-13. It runs two hours and 10 minutes. Too intense and violent for younger children, it might be suitable for “tweens” with a caring adult at hand to talk things over after lights come up.
Whether you want an exciting summer film, or a thought-provoking reflection on the fallen nature of we, the sentient, this is your ticket. Wildly entertaining, superbly produced, patiently directed and magnificently performed, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is one of the best films of 2014.