Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Has a Story as Good As Its Special Effects

Ten years after hyper-intelligent chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) freed apes throughout the San Francisco area, the apes have created their own hunter-gatherer society in the Redwood forest. Meanwhile, the human population across the globe has been almost entirely wiped out by the same virus that gave Caesar and the apes their intelligence. The apes believe the humans to be long gone until a scouting party led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) comes into contact with them. That’s when they learn a faction of uninfected humans live in San Francisco and desperately need a dam in the ape’s territory to get electricity up and running in the city. Caesar and Malcolm work to get the power back, believing their societies can coexist. But when Caesar’s second-in-command Koba (Toby Kebbell) shoots Caesar with a gun he stole, blaming it on the humans, an all-out battle commences between the ape society and the human society.

 

Never has a Planet of the Apes movie looked so good. Where Rise of the Planet of the Apes ditched the campy monkey costumes and opted for motion capture CGI, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes improved upon the already impressive motion capture technology with a better budget. You can see this difference in the gorgeous aesthetics of the apes, as well as in the fluidity between live actors and motion capture actors.

It helps, too, that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has Andy Serkis, who’s considered the master of motion capture acting (See: Lord of the RingsThe HobbitPeter Jackson’s King Kong, Godzilla, and the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII and Avengers: Age of Ultron).

If it weren’t for Serkis, Caesar probably wouldn’t be the compelling character he is in these Planet of the Apes films. There’s a subtlety in Serkis’s performance (which is mostly facial expressions) that speaks volumes of Caesar’s personality, thoughts, and emotions. In fact, the first 20 minutes of the film has little to no interaction (spoken, that is). It’s just sign language, grunting, and glances between the apes. Yet we learn more about the dynamics within the ape society in those nonverbal moments than we do in the spoken moments.

Speaking of societal dynamics, we could analyze so much in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes—particularly the parallelism between the two lead characters, Caesar and Malcolm, and their individual societies—which goes to show the screenwriters actually took their time to develop solid characters and an interesting plot. Let’s break it down.

Caesar is the leader of the ape society. Malcolm is a leader within his society (and is perhaps a better leader than Dreyfus, who’s played by Gary Oldman). Caesar has a female companion and two young sons, one of whom he’s grooming for leadership someday. Malcolm has a female partner, Ellie (Keri Russell), who became his pseudo-wife after his wife died, and a son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), for whom he’s trying to make a better world. Caesar has Koba, who goes behind his back to screw up the peace between apes and humans. Malcolm has Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who begins the initial conflict with the apes and continues to cause problems with them. To top it off, Caesar and Malcolm want to avoid a fight and have coexisting societies.

Why is this interesting? Well, there’s an underlying theme in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that suggests that humans are, in fact, the savage beasts and not the apes. Caesar even mentions this savagery when he tells the other apes that they will only become like humans if they fight and cause destruction like the humans before them (I found that somewhat ironic, as it’s the blending of the ape’s pack mentality and the human’s civilized society that makes Caesar the intelligent and effective leader he is).

But as the parallelism between Caesar and Malcolm starts to develop through their interactions and individual stories, it’s obvious the film’s message is leading us more to a conclusion about savagery and corruption in both societies, of which Koba and Carver are blatant demonstrations. Now, whether that’s to make the point that there’s no such thing as a “perfect society,” or to make the point that apes and humans aren’t really that different from an evolutionary and behavioral standpoint after all, I don’t know. Worth discussing…

My only complaint? I feel like we’re going to have two more setup movies before we get to a movie where the apes and humans are living in the Planet of the Apes world we know. I wouldn’t mind another movie as the final nail in the coffin between the humans and the apes. But yeah, it feels like this is going to get drawn out longer than it needs to (because money is everything). I’ll say this, at least—if they can keep making these movies as good as this one, I’ll shut up.

Overall, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a fantastic follow-up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Not only was it visually impressive (thanks to motion capture technology), but it expanded on the story established in the first film, showing us the further rise of apes and fall of humans. Caesar continues to be a dynamic character because of Andy Serkis’s verbal and nonverbal acting prowess. And with the parallelism between Caesar and Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, we’re able to see how the ape and human societies aren’t much different from each other. Score one again for the action-packed blockbuster with good writing.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A

For my radio review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 34:24 mark).

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