The Planet of the Apes film franchise has always been a fascinating one. Humans and apes reversing societal roles; one evolving, the other reverting. I grew up on the original films (1968’s Planet of the Apes, 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, 1971’s Escape From the Planet of the Apes, 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and 1973’s Battle For the Planet of the Apes), watching them on the Disney Channel (back in the early 90s when the Disney Channel was still a premium cable channel you had to pay for and it showed a lot of cool TV shows and movies). I saw Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes when it first came out 13 years ago and again at the Museum of the Moving Image 11 years ago. I finally got to see the original Planet of the Apes three years ago at Film Forum in a brand new 35mm print. Then I saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes some time after it came out three years ago; it was a terrific reboot that paid homage to the original films and left audiences wanting more. I recently saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the first sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and it not only met its high expectations but exceeded them as well.
2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up roughly 10 years after the events of the previous film. The opening prologue expands upon the epilogue of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, showing the spread of the virus that wipes out most of humanity and the impact it had worldwide. Caesar, the leader of the apes, now has a family and is only concerned with protecting the home he helped build for the apes in the Muir Woods (though he sometimes thinks about the humans). One day, they encounter a group of humans, one of whom accidentally shoots one of the apes (out of fear). Caesar lets them go, but Malcolm later comes back, apologizing for what happened and asking for Caesar’s help. A human colony has been re-established in San Francisco and is almost out of power. They need to get a hydroelectric dam working again in order to supply the town with power, and the apes happen to live near the dam. Malcolm convinces Caesar to allow him and his group to get the dam working after surrendering their firearms. Meanwhile, Dreyfus, the leader of the human colony, is having a nearby armory checked for guns and other weapon supplies. Dreyfus hopes to go into the Muir Woods by force and do whatever it takes to get the dam working again if Malcolm fails. Koba, one of Caesar’s most-trusted advisors (and who hates humans for all the experimentation conducted on him years before), discovers the armory, and makes a decision that will alter the fates of the human colonists and the apes.
CG effects have come a long way since Jurassic Park came out over 20 years ago. The technology involved keeps getting better and better every year. The ape CG renderings in this film are just incredible. I kept looking for instances where the CG was obviously CG, but it was very hard to distinguish between the CG and the practical. The ape performances were terrific as well. Andy Serkis continues his dominance as THE motion capture actor (hey Academy, why have you not at least given Serkis an Honorary Oscar by now?). There is just no one else who can bring Caesar to life as he can. Toby Kebbell, Nick Thurston, and Judy Greer also shine with their motion capture performances (as Koba, Blue Eyes, and Cornelia respectively). There were some terrific performances from the human characters as well. Jason Clark, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and, of course, Gary Oldman deliver wonderful performances. I was surprised that Gary Oldman wasn’t actually a villain at all (one of the trailers kind of implied that he was the bad guy), and that his actions were, for the most part, understandable.
I liked where the story was taken in this entry. The screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver goes in a darker direction, threatening the peace that Caesar has spent the last 10 years creating and preserving for his kind. Caesar is also shown as not being infallible. He learns too late that humans and apes aren’t as different as he had believed and that he never should’ve believed that all apes were superior to the humans. His faith in the good of humanity remains throughout the film, and we are reminded that he never forgot where he came from. The moment where he watches footage of his younger self and Will Rodman (James Franco’s character from the previous film) on the old camcorder was a touching one. Michael Giacchino, who previously collaborated with director Matt Reeves on 2008’s Cloverfield and 2010’s Let Me In, provides an excellent score that complements the action and the drama (the choral work was also wonderful). The Planet of the Apes franchise is in a good place right now, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next installment.