There’s a lot wrong with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
That’s what I keep telling myself anyways. It’s completely true, mind you. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is pretty flawed. It is, however, the kind of movie whose semi-intangible effect far and away outshines the flaws. To fall back on the old cliché: it is more than the sum of its parts. Which is why it seems to be getting rave reviews, yet every review makes concessions: “Dawn is classic too-many-cooks committee filmmaking.” And that’s from a review that’s overwhelmingly positive. Here’s another comparable example: “The rest of the first act has its issues. You can see the seams where other material was excised…” I’m front-loading this review with negatives for a reason. I’m concerned the end result will be too…. Too this.
Perhaps the most damning fault I could find with Matt Reeves entry in the reincarnated Planet of the Apes series – it’s played far too safe. At least on a script level. There is something wonderful daring about a blockbuster opening with a lengthy series of scenes entirely communicated via subtitled sign language. Or there would be, in a world where Wall.E wasn’t already a thing. But it’s still decently daring. Proper Apes movies don’t fall so prey to blockbuster tropes and concepts though. There’s no potentially franchise concluding endings here. No utter strangeness. No baby-murder, world destruction, time travel, or underground mutants. It basically takes this ridiculously unusual franchise and dresses it in the down-to-earth trappings of a post-Nolan blockbuster. You’ll note I had the same problem with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but Dawn sets itself apart as a truer Ape movie in other ways. I really want to see this new stretch of films go somewhere weirder in the future however.
The safe script is more problematic when you realize the entire thing is just a little too generic. A little too lowest-common-denominator. A little too clichéd. Just about every plot point in this movie is a common trope or cliché. There’s a sense that the script is doing just enough with these tropes to differentiate the movie from others that share these tropes. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes manages to make these tropes feel like archetypal truths discovered in the hearts of the conflicts it presents. Most of the time anyways. Mainly it’s the human characters who start to bear the brunt of this decidedly uncreative approach to the script. These characters, with the exception of Malcolm, feel like they’re a little too obvious. There’s their tear-jerker moment. There’s their other tear-jerker moment. And it’s not like Malcolm gets an arc or anything, his motivations just feel a little more original. Or at least less clichéd in presentation… There’s something different there anyways. Really the humans are secondary and tertiary characters moved up a notch so your average audience member can connect with something non-digital.
Which is fine. The human characters do bring an effective compliment to the apes. It’s legitimately important to the themes that we get to see their side of the story. That being said I am fabulously happy the apes are so clearly the main characters. That’s what I want from a Planet of the Apes movie. Caesar and the apes are the meat. I still think it’s fair to wish the side-dish was slightly better prepared though.
Thank god for the apes. And the themes. And Matt Reeves. Because this movie has garnered overwhelmingly positive response for a reason:
“With all this in mind, it stands to reason that Snowpiercer’s social and political subtexts, and indeed the film itself, would be taken a little more seriously. Still, Dawn says as much about imperialism and the futility of war as Snowpiercer says about capitalism and global warming, and with as much nuance and subtlety…”
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes isn’t just the best film of the summer, it’s one of the best films of the year. Thoughtful without sacrificing action, Dawn shows that a movie with characters we care about will be more absorbing, more enthralling than a movie with cardboard characters and constant explosions. This year the simian leader of an ape tribe has more humanity than the human leads of most other blockbusters”
See? No one can stay negative about this movie for long, and my tenure as an objective critic is over.
Because I absolutely adore this movie.
And that joke about casting aside my objective criticism is actually wildly misleading, because, objectively speaking, there’s a ton to love about this movie.
Like the performances. Even the underwritten humans are great. Even the underwritten humans that aren’t Gary Oldman are good. The apes are wonderful though. Andy Serkis is utterly engrossing as Caesar. The performance is more memorable than many human actors I’ve watched this summer. By a mile. And Toby Kebbell, who plays Koba, goes toe to fucking toe with him throughout this movie. Koba might in fact be the first truly great antagonist-ape of the entire franchise. IMDb says he’s playing Dr. Doom in the new Fantastic Four movie? Wicked. He absolutely oozes pathos and barely contained rage throughout this film. He stands out something fierce.
Of course one can’t talk about the apes’ performances without talking about the effects that make them possible. I’m sure in two years these effects will look dated. They always seem too… But I don’t think these apes will ever register as anything other than characters. Some of the shots were utterly incredible. Especially Maurice, the Orang-utan. (Maybe because he was the least humanized ape?) There were a few shots of Maurice my brain absolutely refused to process as computer generated. That’s an experience I can’t ever remember having before. I just kept telling myself “that’s pixels” and it didn’t even register. Kudos to WETA, who have redeemed themselves in my eyes for the travesty that was The Desolation of Smaug. Remember that? Let’s all just collectively stop remembering okay?
While we’re talking about technical achievements it should be said that this was the first blockbuster I’ve seen since Avatar that used 3D in a manner I found memorable. Normally I can barely keep which movies I saw in 3D and which I saw in 2D straight in my head. I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in both, and the 3D actually added something. Somewhere between cinematographer Michael Seresin and Matt Reeves the decision was made to keep the foreground, middle-ground, and background very separate. Separate enough that the focus stood out to me in 2D. It’s a fine aesthetic in general, and lends itself rather well to the subject matter. The 3D doesn’t transform it or anything, but it does compliment it, and that’s unusual enough.
Shit. I haven’t even touched on the plot yet have I?
There’s just so much to write about….
The movie opens with the exact same graphic Rise of the Planet of the Apes ends with. Except everything about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is superior, so they take this graphic and make it red and add in fictional news reports and play way better music over it. Instantly the film is bleak. Instantly this graphic is lent far more impact than it had at the end of the last film.
The opening scenes of this movie are perfection. We see the apes hunting and the script deftly establishes their society, the setting, their relationship with humans (or lack thereof), and the most important relationships between the apes. It does more to attach the audience to the apes than any clumsy expositional back-story about deceased family members ever could. It also feels incredibly smart to let the human incursion feel, at least at first, like the other. The first time we hear a gunshot it’s chilling, almost as chilling as the first time we hear Caesar speak. Both these things represent the sudden intrusion of humanity, which, if only for a second, is recast by the movie as something alien.
The brunt of the plot revolves around a power dam. The humans need it to regain power and attempt to contact other survivors, but the plant is firmly in ape territory. Caesar agrees to let the humans use the dam and an uneasy allegiance is struck. Caesar and Malcolm are the leaders of their respective people, but their compatriots are similarly problematic. Gary Oldman is dangerously devoted to keeping their restored fragment of civilization civil, and is willing to kill as many apes as needed to make this happen. Not that he ever comes across nearly as cartoonishly broad as that makes it sound. In fact as the movie progresses he only sees increasingly terrible actions from the apes, and his slightly manic position only seems more justifiable. His ape counterpart is Koba, who deeply mistrusts the humans after a lifetime spent in labs. In one of the films more piercing moments Koba growls “human work” while pointing to the various scars on his body – equating the abuse he suffered with Malcolm’s attempts to fix the dam.
This is where the film’s rich thematics start to come in. Through a series of overreactions, betrayals, misinterpretations, and deliberately engineered misunderstandings the apes and humans are driven to war. There are so many parallels to be pointed out. Conflicts in the Middle East, Native American history, gun violence, and the animalistic nature of humanity are perhaps the biggest issues the movie tackles. Actually “tackles” is the wrong word. It’s so easy to slip a cliché like that in without noticing what it implies – that the movie tries to present solutions. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has no interest in solutions. Instead it holds up a mirror to various aspects of society and draws our attention to dark undercurrents beneath so many if them. It’s grand and broad and sweeping, which is why critics seem to be reading different pieces of commentary into it:
“The former is, obviously, an umbrella that shades a lot of ground, invoking everything from the inhumane treatment of Native Americans to the horrors of fascist suppression, the violence/non-violence tension of the Civil Rights movement…”
“…hear all the protests of Muslim memorials, refusals to allow child-refugees safe harbour in our cities, intolerance towards and persecution of gays.”
It’s powerful commentary that is at once this broad and specific.
Let’s get SPOILERY for a second.
The movie ends with Caesar basically becoming a dictator. It was great watching some of my friends react to this. One in particular was furious with the choices Caesar made. Eventually he acknowledged that the movie’s point was that Caesar’s choices were bad, but inevitable, and that it wanted to foster that anger and disappointment. To me that final fight was perhaps the movie at it’s most brilliant. It leads you carefully towards this cliché. You more than half-suspect from the second that fight starts that Koba will fall to his death despite Caesar’s best efforts. Even Battle for the the Planet of the Apes essentially built to that exact scene. It lets the villain get punished and the hero get revenge while also keeping the protagonist’s moral code (and Ape Law) intact. Instead Caesar decides that Koba doesn’t have the same rights as all the other apes, and kills him. It’s brutal and bleak and poignant. Sure Caesar seems regretful of where he’s ended up, especially in his exchange with Malcolm, but he still stands tall at the centre of a group of prostrated apes at the finale. Everything about this presents Caesar as the ruler of a newly created dictatorship. It’s a beautifully cynical world view writ large across the ending.
The rest will be SPOILER FREE dear readers.
Despite not having a franchise-shatteringly weird ending Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is far more deserving of the Apes title than Rise of the Planet of the Apes, or even Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The main thing that sets it apart from Rise is the fact that the apes are the film’s true main characters. Sure it’s not a Planet of the a Apes movie without some wooden human characters, but it has some of most engaging ape characters yet. Certainly the most engaging ape characters not played by Roddy McDowall. It even has more engaging secondary ape character than any other modern Apes movie.
Another element that clearly sets Dawn of the Planet of the Apes firmly in the category of “true Apes film” is the ending. In true Dawn of the Planet of the Apes fashion the movie has a bleak and devastating conclusion. It’s a pointed thematic barb wonderfully designed to catch in your brain, and it works as well as the best Ape endings. I would say it wasn’t as iconic as the original, but to be honest I’ve already quoted it a ton. Its clearly one of the more functional finales the Apes series has to offer.
Which is why it seems to be getting such rave reviews. Sure, the movie is rather flawed. Some bland characters, some clearly missing scenes, and some scenes that feel way less propulsive and connected than they should. The thematics, however, are so on point, so effective, and so powerful the movie is winning people over. We want our movies to have a well executed artistic point, and to see a movie do it this well despite being a summer blockbuster is so welcome critics can’t help but celebrate it.