by Philip Price
2011's re-tooling of the ‘Planet of the Apes’ franchise was a surprise in many ways, but mostly in the way that it was really good. I went into the film with modest expectations. Having only ever seen the 1968 original and the Tim Burton re-make I wasn't soaked in the lore of the franchise and didn't hold out hope for a resurgence in the narrative. Still, when you go into a movie framed as somewhat of an origin story and understand where it ultimately has to lead there is a level of intrigue you can't exactly put your finger on and that is what “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” capitalized on and did so in ways that made the picture, as a full body of work, excel in many ways. With those kinds of expectations set for the sequel and the fantastic trailers that have been rolling out over the past six months it was difficult to adjust one's excitement for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” in a fashion that might not be cause for disappointment when the movie finished playing. While I tried to avoid the trailers after the second one was released it was almost impossible to not see several television spots over the past month as Twentieth Century Fox has done well to position this as one of if not the major event movie of the summer. There was a lot of general love for ‘Rise’ as I can recall speaking with friends who don't go to the movies regularly and them telling me they decided to go see it and how much they enjoyed it. That kind of attitude seemed to resonate with the average movie-goer and will no doubt translate to bigger business for ‘Dawn,’ but while I can imagine this sequel being more than a satisfactory trip to the movies for those who enjoyed ‘Rise’ once the excitement calms down it will likely become clearer the film suffers from not having as much substance, as much allegory or as much emotional depth as the first did. While it should not be thought I didn't enjoy this film (it is actually thoroughly enjoyable and will be worthy of repeat viewings) it is not a film that aspires towards the greatness of the first and because of this lack of complexity it feels all the safer, all the more generic and any other adjectives such as these that allow ‘Dawn’ to distance itself from the attributes that made Rise so interesting and entertaining.
Remember the pilot from the first film? The one who was neighbors with James Franco's Will Rodman and was exposed to the disease contracted by Rodman's lab partner Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine)? It seems the pilot took that disease across the globe and it spread like wildfire. As “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” opens we are between 10-to-15 years removed from the events of the first film and the human race is on its last leg. How many are left? No one is certain, but Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his band of apes have retreated to the forests outside of San Francisco and have made a comfortable living for themselves, not intervening with what might be left of the human race. Caesar has a son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), who is eager to please his father by becoming a leader yet his inability to be patient and listen stunts his growth. Koba (Toby Kebbell) still stands by Caesar's side, ready to fight whenever his anger is called upon and setting a more attractive example for the young, impressionable Blue Eyes. Caesar has also just had another son with partner Cornelia (Judy Greer) whose body isn't coping well with the repercussions of giving birth. Enter the human element of our story in the form of Malcolm (Jason Clarke) his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Ellie (Keri Russell), hot-headed Carver (Kirk Acevedo) as well as extra muscle Foster and Kemp (Jon Eyez and Enrique Murciano). This small group of humans are searching for a dam on the outskirts of the city that may help them generate more power and sustain their lifestyle for a longer period of time when they come across this colony of apes. As we are all prone to violence to protect what we fear there is an immediate distaste for one another. Caesar is a thinker though and despite his anger, still understands the concept of nothing in absolutes-that there are as many bad apes as there are good humans. When Caesar allows the humans to live and to return to their own colony the revelation of what the apes have become is too much for the masses as well as their leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), to let go of. You can imagine what happens next.
What made ‘Rise’ so interesting was that despite the fact we knew where the story would have to eventually end it still made the moments that were necessary feel organic. With ‘Dawn’ there is an aspect to the storytelling where it feels things happen because we know they have to and ultimately not much ends up happening in the film except for what can be summarized in a few sentences. I don't want to sound as if I'm doing nothing but comparing the film to its predecessor, but given how well Rise pulled off its objective one would imagine the sequel would take a few notes, at least in terms of how to convey the continuation of the same story. More than anything the issue seems to be that they are plodding through events now that they know they have a franchise on their hands and are extending what might have been half of a film into a full feature. The signs of this include the development of the human characters here as they are little more than a few characteristics with nothing below the surface. It is not the fault of talented actors like Clarke, Russel, Smit-McPhee or Oldman, it is simply that there is nothing on the page for them to do. They are part of this bigger world and exist in this movie to fill a role so that Caesar, Koba and their followers may get from point A to point B. While this type of structure is the objective of most films, that the proceedings here are so transparent make the effort put into bringing this story to life not as great and result in a final product that is not as satisfying as it could be. Of course, it is clear that great effort has been put into other aspects of the production as the film is a visual wonder to behold and worth seeing on the big screen for that reason alone. There is no compassion for the situation without Caesar and there is no arguing that this is not a full performance from Andy Serkis. The film both opens and closes with close-up shots of Caesar's eyes and in those digital eyes we in fact see a soul. It is incredible and the special effects are flawless. No matter how silly the thought of apes riding on horseback while wielding guns may sound the folks that put these scenes together have created some startling realistic images that convey more depth and emotion in the apes facial expressions and body language than some of the humans can muster with their dialogue.
I understand how it may sound in that I wasn't too impressed with this film, but that would not be a true statement. There are indeed some great, small moments throughout whether it be when Alexander teaches Maurice (Karin Konoval) to read a book or when Koba intelligently integrates himself into the human’s weapons arsenal by deceiving its guards. Matt Reeves takes over directing duties from Wyatt Russell on ‘Rise’ and focuses his story more on the apes and their growth and ability to read and judge a situation rather than the continual yearn for independence from the already present society the humans have constructed. Reeves allows his camera to linger on the apes, staging them in ways that give an imposing sense of strength and scale while every so often doing something just different enough (such as allowing the camera to spin on top of a tank while detailed action takes place in front of the camera) that we understand there is a level of deeper connection between the story that is being told and the way the filmmaker has invisibly chosen to tell us that story. As an action film ‘Dawn’ is more than up to the task, hitting the big moments frequently and earlier than I would have expected. What is strange about the film though is that for all its scope and grand set design with both expensive digital work and sweeping shots it still very much feels like a small instance, a contained blast of anger that I assume will only spread in the sequels to come. The underlying lessons by which Caesar comes to realize that his society has the same chance to fail as the humans did and that apes are not so different from man and in fact are similar in ways he was hoping to avoid is as deep or telling as the film gets while, given the layers of storytelling combined in ‘Rise,’ I was hoping for something more; an adventure where I felt like I went along on a journey with the characters rather than as a bystander watching what unfolds in front of me from a safe distance. ‘Dawn’ is interesting in that it never assigns the good guy role or the bad guy role to anyone specific, but rationally assigns different, understandable perspectives to each party and draws its conflict from that only to result in a story of the most generic kind-which is a real bummer considering how much good is going on here.