By Patrick Dane
When Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out in the summer of 2011, it was a real surprise. On paper, a prequel to Planet of the Apes is an awful idea. Not only does it spoil the ending of the original movie, exploring how the world got that way didn't sound that interesting. It could have easily been a something best left to the imagination. Rupert Wyatt had different ideas though, infusing smart film-making decisions with a surprisingly personal story. What made Rise of the Planets of the Apes refreshing was that the original Planet of the Apes movies were treated only as an end point and not a tonal barometer. It was actually refreshing how devoid Rise felt from the movies it was prequelling.
Now three years have past and neither Wyatt and James Franco aren't returning for Rise's sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. That's a lot to overcome and it could have potentially set all the good will earned by RotPotA back to square one.
But it hasn't.
In fact, much like the last installment, it helps raise the profile of a well respected and underrated filmmaker up a notch by telling an affecting and thoughtful sci-fi story. Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) has more then proven himself with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. While not completely forgetting the film that came before it, he stamps his own directorial voice on the sequel which is increasingly rare in the franchised world of Hollywood Blockbusters.
Despite the external similarities with RotPotA (rejuvenating the franchise, creating a name for an under loved director, being the surprise of its respective summer), it's remarkable how different the two actually are. The story completely sidesteps the plot of the last film by setting its events 10 years later. Caesar is one of the few returning characters and he now has a family, a fully grown son and an entire ape community to look over. Trouble arises when a small group of humans, who the apes assumed had died out from simian flu, stumble upon the primate village. What ensues is a tale of betrayal, politics and war as the film paints an interesting conflict where both sides have distinctly grey motives.
The allegory Reeves weaves about how no side in war is black or white isn't groundbreaking, but with nuanced characters and bold choices, Dawn's themes are distinctly profound. There's strong imagery reminiscent of middle eastern warfare, with empathetic loss shared on both sides of the fight. Even the 'bad' guys, namely Koba for the apes and Gary Oldman's Dreyfus for the humans, receive ample time spent humanizing their reasons for hating the opposing side. Both of these characters have at least a scene dedicated to understanding their troubling motives. To illustrate, Koba is certainly a piece of work but his mistrust of the humans is justified by the animal testing he'd been subject to before becoming wholly intelligent. There are also deeper metaphors about gun control and political fear encased within Dawn which all add depth to its themes, creating a tactful tone that elevates its potentially trite metaphor.
It should be no surprise that performance capture is ever improving and DofPotAs showcases some of the best to date. Caesar is full to the brim with emotional nuances and this time he's joined by hundreds of ape brethren, all as expressive as the last. Andy Serkis is as impressive as ever giving a powerhouse performance as the central simian, but it's important to remember the tireless work of WETA. They've had a clear affect on the performances of Caesar and his community. That is something that shouldn't be forgotten. Serkis has clearly driven the character of Caesar, but WETA will have no doubt perfected it.
The rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise continues to be a surprise breakout with Dawn being a very strong sequel to Wyatt's Rise. The two are vastly different with Dawn being a much more dour effort by focusing on the complexities of war, but Reeves has lived up to the promise the first left us with in 2011. The debate will be open about which is the better entry, but in reality, they are two different beasts tackling different subject matter. It doesn't matter which is better, they are both a joy. This is going to be one of the summer's gems, and you should definitely check it out.
Patrick Dane, once a would be filmmaker, has somewhat accidentally found himself as an entertainment journalist over the past two years. You may recognize him from around these parts, or you may not. Who's counting? From E3 to SDCC to the Top Gear track, Patrick has explored the world of entertainment wherever it has taken him. He is always happy to talk words at you. Hopefully the ones above will suffice your needs.