I battled between “apeshit” and “bananas” for the title. As a hack writer, I am expected to use a shitty ape pun in the title. I went with the more “kid friendly” of the two. Here’s hoping you all have forgotten about my choice by the time the third film comes out. Just kidding. I expect to be long since frozen in carbonite/dead by that point. I digress.
Let me preface by saying that I am a massive fan of apes and I love movies about apes. I find them both entertaining and engaging. After all they are our closest genetic cousin and evolutionary partner so it’s hard not to feel an affinity for the guys. Now a good majority of movies centered around apes are complete shit. When they are not saving the world through espionage, they are often subjugated to sports movies, both competitive and extreme, or hotel hijinks. For every King Kong, there are Dunstons. The Planet of the Apes franchise is the happy middle ground that represent both the ape movie zenith and its lowest lows. -COUGHBENEATHTHEPLANETOFTHEAPESCOUGH-
The series has seen a great resurgence thanks to the 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a movie that should not have been as good as it was. Like Kung-Fu Panda, it was a movie that defied all expectations and became of the best films of the year. The biggest contributors to the film’s success was both the visual effects work of WETA Digital and Andy Serkis’ spectacular motion capture performance as Caesar. To me, Serkis has been unjustly (but understandably) denied award consideration for his mo-cap performances. If it weren’t for him, more than one film would have fallen apart.
This leads us to the sequel headed by Matt Reeves, a director who is well versed in defying expectations. This is one of the movies I was most excited for going into this summer, and I am happy to say that it not only matches its predecessor, it surpasses it, making it the best entry in the franchise since the 1968 original.
“A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species.” – Twentieth Century Fox
All good sequels take what was good about the first film and expand on the world it created. The mistake many sequels make however is that the filmmakers believe that bigger is better. They expand visually but stay stagnant in the story department. Good sequels often also carry heavier themes and an overall darker tone. (The exception being good comedy sequels. I’m looking at you, 22 Jump Street.) Poor sequels never have anything new to say about the material. In short, a truly good sequel should go further than the first film and take risks.
Dawn adheres to these formulas well, setting the stage for one of the best sequels I’ve ever seen.
Serkis continues to do wonders as Caesar, proving he is the go-to-guy for motion capture. As with the previous film, Serkis breathes life into the world-worn Caesar as he attempts to maintain a very thin line between man and ape. Every emotion and tick registers on his face.
Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of the film is that Serkis isn’t alone this time around. While the ape performers did an admirable job in the first film, they knock it out of the park in the sequel, particularly Toby Kebbell’s Koba. As Caesar’s second-in-command, Koba serves as the closest thing this film has to a villain albeit a completely sympathetic one.Permanently scarred by experimentation, Koba’s hatred for humanity is completely justified. Unlike Caesar, Koba is only privy to humanity at its worst and therefore we relate to his plight to it wiped from the Earth for good. The juxtaposition between Caesar and Koba is one of the driving conflicts in the story, and the scenes between Serkis and Kebbell serves as some of the film’s best.
The effects are just draw-dropping. Some of the shots will have you questioning whether you are seeing a real ape or not. The true magic happens when you forget. I don’t know why but a lot of work went into creating Maurice, an orangutan played once again by Karin Konoval. For whatever reason this character constantly looks flawless. Remember how Gravity was a sure win for “Best Visual Effects” during the Oscars this spring. Well expect this movie to be streets ahead of any of the other nominees come award season next year.
The human characters are painted in broad strokes but still register better than in Rise. The main family is a bit of a cliche but no more than any of the characters from the first film. Like Godzilla, this film wastes the talent of a supremely talent actor. Gary Oldman plays human leader Dreyfus and is in the movie for about 15 minutes. He isn’t given much wiggle room in terms of character development, but the one quiet moment he is allowed he absolutely nails.
The score by Michael Giacchino is perfection, further cementing his status as the new John Williams – albeit John Williams is still with us and a badass.
Tension is built effectively as the solid screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback leads to the inevitable battle between the two fractions that takes up a majority of the film’s conclusion. It’s worth noting that once the war between ape and man breaks out, the moment is more melancholy than triumphant. While there is cool imagery – such as an ape duel wielding two machine guns while riding a horse – the tone is rather sad in the face of the peace that was almost obtained. As the film concludes, I found myself filled with dread at the events destined to break out in the third (and I assume final) film in this prequel trilogy. War has broken out, and many lives will be lost. We know the ultimate outcome, but I can’t wait/fear the events that will get us there.
I also appreciated that this film was as blatant as the last film in its references to previous installments. There are little nods here and there – such as Caesar’s wife’s name being Cornelia (played by Judy Greer of Archer and Arrested Development fame) – but nothing as eye-rolling as Tom Felton screaming…
No one talks like that in real life. Especially people under 25.
The script isn’t without fault however. I mentioned the family is somewhat bland. Well other human characters are just downright frustrating, particularly the inclusion of the one asshole character that is an asshole for no reason and is then included in important events even though everyone should know he will fuck things up for everyone.
“But, Tyler, they needed him because he knew how to fix the dam!”
Well, one person trying to make sense of this stupid character, they seemed to do fine without him after they sent him off BEFORE they fixed the dam. Almost like his inclusion was only to cause a rift between the two species in order to move the plot forward. Sure does make sense to bring a detrimental character with you for no reason. As we all know, bringing in people that work against our interests is absolutely the best strategy.
I’m nitpicking, but characters like this and their importance to the overall plot in some movies annoy the shit out of me.
Let me summarize with this: who would have EVER thought that a sequel to a prequel/reboot after a reboot based on a franchise with 5 films based on a French novel would be as good as this movie is. We can only hope that the sequel is half as good as the set up this film has provided it. My vision for the third film is something along the lines of this…