A slight step above its rather silly predecessor, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes decides to go the deathly serious route instead of keeping things light and fun with decidedly mixed results. It’s not that there can’t be a serious Planet of the Apes entry – especially with a director as clearly gifted as Matt Reeves – but this isn’t quite it despite a few flashes of brilliance. Instead of coming equipped with a screenplay that can sustain a straight-faced epic that just happens to include talking apes on horseback with machine guns, it comes with a screenplay for a decidedly sillier and lesser movie. The performances and effects are a big step up. The story is in the same relative place and all of the human characters are essentially useless. Eventually it succumbs to the same pitfalls as every other summer blockbuster before finally giving into something I like to call “Man of Steel syndrome,” which I’ll get into more in a a little bit.
Set approximately a decade following the world changing events in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the human race faces almost total extinction following a deadly outbreak of “simian flu.” In the California woodlands outside of San Francisco, ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) lives with his family and followers in relative peace. That all comes crashing down when several human emissaries from a nearby survivor enclave – led by Malcolm, played by Jason Clarke – ask for Caesar’s help in restoring power to their shantytown by way of a hydro dam deep in ape territory. Still wary of humans, but seeing the good they are capable of Caesar agrees to help, leading to a power struggle with his former best friend and human hater Koba (Toby Kebbell).
Following a pretty cool opening that does a fine job encapsulating the events of the past ten years into about a minute, the film hints at a sense of world building that it can’t quite follow through on. The sets are grander and more ambitious, both in the woods and in the overgrown city, but after some attempts by humans to reach the outside world later in the film, that sense of grandeur is replaced by the sense that this is the same movie as last time with more plant based overgrowth and a new villain.
There are good humans. There are bad humans. Not a single one of them has an actual character. Despite turning in a decent performance, I can’t tell you what Clarke’s character actually does for a living. He founded the colony of surviving humans with a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). We find out by way of a recharged iPad with saved photographs that Dreyfuss was a former soldier with a family. We know that Clarke has a son that tags along with him (Kodi Smit-McPhee), his wife is dead, and he’s dating a former CDC doctor (Keri Russell) that also lost a kid. Do you want to know more about these people? Tough. That’s all you are getting.
Malcolm is a blandly nice guy that has even less going on than James Franco in the original. Oldman and Russell are mere plot devices to be employed as needed. McPhee, in one of the year’s biggest wastes of a talented actor, just sits around making sketches and at one point gives an ape a copy of Charles Burns’ graphic novel, Black Hole. That’s literally his only function and the only thing he ever does that’s even remotely noteworthy, so why even have that character? There’s the trigger happy, ape hating guy (Kirk Acevedo) who initially get the humans into a load of shit, but he’s somehow indispensible because he’s the only guy who can make the dam work. So when he goes crazy again and everyone just finds a way to turn it on anyway, why even have him other than to elicit false tension that the film could provide in other ways? There’s also a literal token black character (Jon Eyez) who dances to The Band’s “The Weight” outside a convenience store and delivers a single weak one liner to the crazy white guy of the group. These humans are useless except to move the action along as necessary and to keep the budget down since creating all those good looking apes must be really expensive.
It’s somewhat obvious that the only reason Malcolm has a son would be to mirror the tenuous relationship Caesar has with his oldest boy (played by Nick Thurston), but since Malcolm never interacts with his son besides telling him to move out of the way occasionally and smiling at him from time to time, that never gels. It extends to every other half-assed correlation that’s drawn between human militarism and how if we evolved from apes, then they, too, mush succumb to the same follies that we do. That’s not a revolutionary notion. That’s every genre film about any sort of conflict ever made on a subtextual level (the good ones, anyway).
This is an incredibly silly, one note story that could drone on and on, but it’s told by Reeves in the straightest possible way with hardly a wink or nod to the audience. Michael Giacchino’s lush, beautiful, and occasionally playful score swells over majestic and sweeping camera shots that are designed to dazzle the audience into submission. To Reeves’ full credit, he’s a hell of a director. He can make a film that has deluded itself into thinking it feel like it’s saying something while being dumb as a post. He has mastered the art of the tracking shot (and placing a camera in a vehicle being tipped over for the third film in a row), and a stunning 360 degree shot of an ape taking over a tank and blowing the hell out of stuff will forever be engrained on my memory. That’s awesome. Shots of apes running around on fire are awesome. The film’s climactic battle for ape supremacy might be the best high wire kind of fight sequence since Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. This is what Matt Reeves brings to the table that the film needs: competency.
But that sense of gravitas and weight is undeserved by this material. Reeves uses every trick in his immense arsenal, and he still can’t quite cover up the fact that this is just a hair better than the kinds of empty blockbusters people usually get this time of year. Everything is far too thin, and despite delivering all of the goods and then some in the film’s lengthy climactic showdown between the humans and the apes, the actual final fight is cause for concern. It succumbs to the same sort of logical fallacy that Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel fell into. Not only does it end with a scene that makes you question where every other human and ape went while three humans and two apes were engaging in a battle of wills that levels everything around them with little regard for loss of life, but it also forces our hero to abandon all of their painstakingly laid out ideals to become a badass designed for a cheap pop when push comes to shove. The final 15 minutes of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, without spoiling anything, is the key to disproving any theory that Reeves’ picture is operating on a higher intellectual level than its high concept counterparts.
And yet, I’m still somehow compelled to moderately recommend the film despite the style and substance battling to a draw. The reasons why are Serkis and Kebbell. There’s a good reason why the apes take centre stage here over their human counterparts. Allowed to delve further into Caesar’s development as a character, Serkis shows the toll that leadership and parenthood has taken. He’s strong, but weary; in danger of losing the edge and the fire that made him such a great leader. Serkis was great in the first film, but he has a lot more to do with the character now that his learning curve has been established. It’s a remarkable performance.
Kebbell almost outdoes him as the chief villain of the piece. Koba isn’t just a character with a heart full of hate, but a master of manipulation. If the movie ever approaches any sort of treatise about political power plays, it’s through him. He’s the simian equivalent of Kevin Spacey’s character from House of Cards. He can make people follow him through fear, acting like a father or friend, or by faking like he’s a kind and caring ape. He’s terrifying in his cunning and a perfect foil for the moral minded Caesar.
I could go on about the numerous and wholly irksome logical inconsistencies and how the script just seemingly forgets about entire characters and plotlines. I could talk about how it’s just a giant boys club where women barely need apply except to have babies or patch up the men they love. I think I have beaten up on the film as much as I have to in order to make the point that this isn’t the second coming of the Hollywood blockbuster. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a decent enough film to feature apes riding on horseback while firing off machineguns and burning everything down around them. The effects are great. The spectacle is great. You get what you pay for if all you want is empty thrills, and this year you could do a heck of a lot worse in that department. It’s worth it for Reeves, Kebbell, and Serkis. They nail it. The rest of the movie, not so much.