Great Apes!: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
By Witney Seibold on July 11, 2014
In the eighth and final (for now) installment of Great Apes!, we look at the most recent film in the Planet of the Apes franchise, and find a pretty ripping wartime polemic, although one strangely devoid of levity.
I mentioned in the very first Great Apes! article that one of the central appealing factors of the 1968 original was its mixture of apocalyptic commentary and subtle absurdist humor. When the Apes franchise started a new continuity in 2011 – now being directly continued in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – I noted that the tone was much more stern than its predecessors. I wasn’t necessarily disturbed by the lack of levity, but I did note it as an interesting choice. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes the stern tone of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and expands it. The violence is more extensive, the tension much higher, and the conflicts much more dramatic. At 130 minutes, it’s also the longest film in the entire Apes series, turning it from a simple sci-fi yarn into a summertime Hollywood action epic. It’s also a pretty darn good movie.
I have to address the special effects right away. The previous film used the latest in CGI motion capture technology to make digital avatars of intelligent apes, avatars that were stirringly convincing. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is perhaps the first film I have seen to use extensive digital effects that, well, actually look real. I knew intellectually that I was looking at digital effects, but the technology has finally advanced to such a degree that I was wholly convinced of the reality of the digital imagery. Without hyperbole, I can say that this film has some of the best special effects I’ve ever seen. It perhaps helps that the digital apes and the live-action human actors do not touch one another, highlighting their on-camera differences. But looking at these apes, one can be almost 100% convinced that they are actual chimpanzees grunting English words at one another.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is essentially a mulligan for Battle for the Planet of the Apes. I think we can say that now all is forgiven. Indeed, I might even allow this film to act as penance for the much-hated 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, a enjoyably crazy but often maligned man vs. animal movie. Dawn takes place about a decade after Rise, in a near future wherein a few virus-resistant humans – the only ones left alive on a ruined Earth – live in protected cities with barely enough power to survive. The apes, including Caesar (motion capture by Andy Serkis) have formed their own rudimentary villages, complete with structures, schools, and a language that consists partly of sign language and partly of raspy English. They even have a primary law: Ape shall not kill ape, a law taken from Battle.
The story is a polemic about nonviolence vs. those who are interested in war. Caesar wants to live in peace, but is constantly butting heads with his ape lieutenant Koba (motion capture by rising star Toby Kebbell) who wants to kill all humans. Koba is clearly modeled after General Aldo from Battle. The humans, meanwhile are having a similar conflict. Peaceful engineer Malcolm (Jason Clarke) wants to trek into ape territory to fix a dam in order to power the nearby human village, whilst his violent lieutenant Carver (Kirk Acevedo) wants to kill all apes. The human characters all have direct ape analogues in the film. While the central battle will be between apes and humans, the thematic conflict will be between warmongers and peaceniks within their respective species. The themes don’t penetrate nearly as deeply as some of the previous ape movies, and they’re hardly subtle (Conquest and the original Planet were both richer and had more finesse about it), but I was relieved to see that they were present.
There is a primal, hilarious thrill to seeing an ape on horseback, firing two machine guns into the air, screaming in monkey rage, which is something that happens in the film’s climax. The film is shooting for a somber and serious tone, but at least throws me – admittedly a guy with a weird sense of humor – a few bones of fun weirdness. Or maybe I am personally too entertained by such imagery; I giggled a lot while watching the movie. Either way, it’s a good time. Dawn runs a bit too long, and some of the final act plot details seems tacked on; the final battle is actually only a penultimate battle. But overall, this is a gorgeous, fun, very entertaining movie. It’s not the best in the series (I am, for better or worse, ever a classicist who often prefers originals to remakes), but I would rank it higher than Rise. It’s a slick, fun, impeccably made action spectacular.
Where does the Apes series go from here? Dawn ends on an ambiguous note, implying that there will be future violence between ape and man. Perhaps the next film will deal more directly with the fall of humans. Is this new Ape continuity going to lead us to something like in the 1968 original, wherein apes are upright, well-dressed intellectuals, and humans are mute animals in cages? I hope so. But we’ll have to start skipping whole millennia for that, and I’m not entirely sure the filmmakers are yet ready to start this particular continuity with all new characters just yet.
If they continue to be successful, we’ll eventually find out. Thanks for reading Great Apes!, dear readers. This is your Lawgiver signing off.