As a filmmaking achievement, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is little short of miraculous. Building
on the eye-popping work in the 2011 series reboot, the geniuses at WETA (led by
Oscar-winner Joe Letteri) have done the impossible, giving new, ironic meaning
to the phrase “seeing is believing.” Their work somehow eclipses the category
of visual effects; perhaps “virtual effects” is more like it. When you see
computer-generated apes interacting with humans, in the real-life setting of
Muir Woods, outside of San Francisco—in 3-D, no less—you accept it all as
genuine, without question.
Adding to this perception is the exceptional motion-capture
performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar, the dominant, human-raised ape we met in
the previous film. His tribe lives in the woods, almost certain that after ten
years’ time, their human enemies have been wiped out. Except they haven’t. When
a scouting party arrives on their turf, hoping to restart a power plant for a
community of survivors in the city, their capable but compassionate leader
(Jason Clarke) manages to persuade Caesar that they mean the animals no harm.
This is where the screenplay (by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver,
and Mark Bomback) reveals some of its inherent weaknesses. Jaffa and Silver,
who wrote the 2011 film, can’t resist certain B-movie tropes. (I can’t
completely blame them: those ingredients tend to be crowd-pleasers.) Naturally,
there’s a loutish, trigger-happy jerk in the human contingent. And just as
inevitably, there is a Brutus to our simian Caesar. Koba (Toby Kebbell) has
been grateful to his mentor all these years, but he interprets Caesar’s
willingness to negotiate with humans as a fatal flaw, and grabs his opportunity
to seize power. (It’s hard to swallow that this character, who becomes
incredibly vicious and violent, has been docile for an entire decade.)
The gist of all this is that war is not precipitated by grand
design but by impetuous acts of violence, which may well be true. And while
apes live by a credo not to kill their own kind, it turns out that these
creatures have all-too-human failings. There are good apes and bad apes, just
as there are good people and bad people—not to mention well-meaning people who are
easily swayed, or just don’t see the Big Picture.
Director Matt Reeves orchestrates all of this in robust
fashion, but once I saw where the story was headed I felt myself detaching from
the picture emotionally. Like so many tentpole movies, this one goes on a bit
too long and leads to a spectacular (if unnecessary) action climax, as if it
were drawn from a manual on how to make summer action films.
It doesn’t help that the human characters are superficial at
best. Clarke has a strong, virile screen presence, and Keri Russell is good as
his companion, whose medical training comes in handy, but the impact of their
characters pales in comparison to the apes. Gary Oldman is stuck in a shopworn
role as leader of the San Francisco survivors who tries to unify his people,
even as the apes stage a full-on attack.
Because the movie is so grand in scale, and so skillfully
executed, it’s bound to please a wide audience, whether they’re looking for
bloodthirsty action, massive doses of special effects, or a parable about war
and peace. I can only applaud its visual achievements, but I maintain my
reservations about its storytelling smarts.
Even after 46 years,
the premise—and resolution—of the 1968 Planet
of the Apes remain impressive and unforgettable. What’s more, the film
offered moviegoers the dazzling element of surprise. This latest incarnation of
the saga does just the opposite: it gives the audience exactly what it expects,
in a shiny, showy package.