Going into last week’s Fox screening of 3D sequel "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," I was both anticipating and skeptical.
Why? Well, the initial series reboot "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" by writer-producers Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, as executed by director Rupert Wyatt, Andy Serkis as ape leader Caesar, and Joe Letteri’s Weta Digital was so superb that the sequel was likely to be a comedown. Back on board were Weta and Serkis, but Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman no longer runs the studio, Wyatt didn’t stay for the sequel, Jaffa and Silver were reluctantly back-stepped to producers, with action writer Mark Bomback ("Live Free and Die Hard," "The Wolverine") and Scott Z. Burns ("Contagion") taking over the screenplay. Fox hiring director Matt Reeves was good news, as I had admired his thoughtful work on horror remake "Let Me In."
I walked out of the screening elated. Here’s what I learned–besides the fact that this will be a huge summer hit when it opens July 11th.
1. Matt Reeves is a terrific director.
The film manages that tricky balance between scope and intimacy, action scale and emotional relationships in close-up. When human survivors of a worldwide simian flu pandemic–we see the lights go out all over the world– intrude on Caesar and his tribe living happily in the deep woods above San Francisco, an inevitable culture clash eventually turns into all-out war. (Is there a racial subtext? yes.) Tolerant and intelligent humans are represented by one family, an engineer (Jason Clarke), his artistic son (Kobi Smit-McPhee, "Let Me In") and his new partner, a doctor (Keri Russell, "The Americans"). They are able to coexist and build trust with Caesar and his apes as they try to restart electricity in San Francisco via a power-generating dam. While Caesar had an enlightened experience with humans, especially his loving paternal mentor ("Rise" star James Franco), Caesar’s lieutenant, warrior Koba, who was abused in captivity by humans, nurses a deep hatred of mankind. The big battle sequences with apes on horseback– and one in particular when renegade Koba swivels on a tank gun turret 360 degrees during a major battle–are stunning.
2. Weta Digital delivers animated characters in a live action environment on a scale we have never seen before.
Weta has been growing its abilities with animated characters ever since it programmed fighters in the large-scale battles to act independently in "The Lord of the Rings." Obviously Fox and Weta have been learning more via James Cameron’s "Avatar" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Now that R & D is seeing fruition with "Dawn," which throws out more "apes"–actually a mix of monkeys, chimps, gorillas, orangutans and other species– on a grander scale, leaping through forests on trees, riding horseback, throwing lassoos, manning machine guns, and living in their thatched forest village.
One aspect of the movie that may ignite some controversy is the way the filmmakers decided to handle the apes’ language. Caesar, memorably, is able to speak English ("apes do not want war but will fight if we must") and so to a degree can some of the lab apes, like Koba, who were hit with an intelligence-enhancing mist. But the rest are being taught to read and write English and use sign language in school. Caesar deploys both methods as he sees fit. We understand their rather unorthodox sign language via subtitles. (Fox has helpfully supplied a featurette (below) with background on what happened in the ten years between "Rise" and "Dawn," which expands on the film’s prologue montage.)
3. Jason Clarke and Keri Russell are rising stars.
It’s tempting to assume that ruggedly handsome and charismatic Australian Jason Clarke ("Zero Dark Thirty," "The Lawless," "The Great Gatsby") is the emerging star here but Keri Russell (who kicks ass on FX’s "The Americans" as a Russian spy) holds her own, even if she is relegated to the warm, supportive nurturing mom role.
4. Andy Serkis–and all motion capture actors– should be awards eligible.
Of course the fact that "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" will be considered a summer action movie for mainstream moviegoers will likely relegate the film to the usual technical categories such as VFX, production design, cinematography, editing, sound, and score. But Serkis’s growth as a motion capture actor is remarkable. He has learned, along with Weta’s animators, from Peter Jackson’s groundbreaking Gollum, King Kong and Captain Haddock in "The Adventures of Tintin" to Caesar, how to move and transmit emotions via motion capture. Sure, computers pick up his muscle movements via strategically placed dots and sensors and animators work with complex algorithms to turn those movements into those of an evolved and intelligent chimpanzee. Yes, he is "rendered." But there’s no denying that an actor gives the performance. I applauded at screening’s end for Serkis.
5. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a sci-fi dystopian action movie.
The writers do deliver their message of tolerance inside the genre skin of an action-packed war movie. But despite Caesar’s "can we get along" efforts, Koba leads the apes to war with the humans, led by his parallel intolerant human counterpart (Gary Oldman). Finally, the intelligent apes make this movie different from the many dystopias and war pictures it so closely resembles. While "Dawn" offers some character-driven respite from the surrounding violence and aggression, the action at its core will put off more gentle-minded audiences.
Check out TOH!’s previous coverage of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," including my Comic-Con interview with Matt Reeves to discuss how he came to the franchise, and Bill Desowitz’s talk with Andy Serkis about his motion capture performance.
Review roundup, background featurette and trailer below:
Variety‘s Guy Lodge called the film "bleak but spectacular":
It’s always darkest before the dawn, goes the saying — but in resuming a franchise already suspended on a downbeat note, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” sees the simian revolution reaching unprecedented levels of bleak anarchy. An altogether smashing sequel to 2011′s better-than-expected “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” this vivid, violent extension of humanoid ape Caesar’s troubled quest for independence bests its predecessor in nearly every technical and conceptual department.
Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy likens "Dawn" to "The Empire Strikes Back"–that is, better and smarter than the first installment:
A gripping account of interspecies conflict, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes manages to do at least three things exceptionally well that are hard enough to pull off individually: Maintain a simmering level of tension without letup for two hours, seriously improve on a very good first entry in a franchise and produce a powerful humanistic statement using a significantly simian cast of characters. In the annals of sequels, Dawn is to Rise of the Planet of the Apes what The Empire Strikes Back was to Star Wars— it’s that much better.
Hit Fix‘s Drew McWeeny sung the film’s praises:
Walking in to "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes," I hoped Matt Reeves had made a solid and respectful follow-up, one that expanded on "Rise" in interesting ways. That’s all I wanted from it. What I got instead is a film that digs deep, that challenges not only the notion of what a studio blockbuster looks like but also how sequels are supposed to work in a commercial world, a movie about real ideas with a spectacular sense of character and mood. "Dawn" is not just a good genre movie or a good summer movie. It’s a great science-fiction film, full-stop, and one of the year’s very best movies so far.