SET TEN YEARS after the apes became self-aware and intelligent, human civilization has collapsed due to a biological experiment (the simian flu) that has metastasized into Armageddon. Small, well-defended communities live in fortified fear… of what’s “out there”. “Out there” are the apes: a large community, knitted together by the communal activity of the hunt and living peacefully under the thoughtful, unquestioned leadership of Alfa ape, Caesar. When the story begins, it’s been two years since they last saw a human… until now, when two ape scouts stumble upon a small human group, searching for the location of a large dam’s long unused hydro-electric generator.
The confrontation, fuelled more by fear and surprise than animosity proves fatal to one of the apes. And so it begins. The story charts Caesar’s attempts to broker a peaceful co-existence with the humans based on trust and respect. But hawkish humans and apes, driven by private agendas, distrustful of each other and wary of too much trust, plunge the two communities into war.
This is a story of trust corrupted by deception, a theme that plays out not only in the bigger narrative but even in the small set-piece scenes, such as one in which one of the apes monkeys around to distract a couple of armed humans; once he has won their trust, he shoots them both. What began with scenes of trust and harmony rapidly falls apart, and we are left in the end with a world where both humans and apes distrust each other as well as themselves.
Presumably on this note, part three will take us back to where we first met the apes, way back when, before Charlton Heston had turned into a rifle-toting bigot.
Director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) has taken over from Rupert Wyatt’s brilliant reinvention of the franchise three years ago, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. With the aid of flawless CGI, he (and the extraordinary Andy Serkis of Golum fame, reprising his role as Caesar) manages to anthromophize the apes well enough to make their interactions compelling, believable and empathetic. The worlds he constructs – one of accomplishment (the ape world) and one of failure and destruction (the human world) – are richly immersive and makes no doubt where his (and our) sympathies lie.
Beyond this, the story of competing ideologies and its slow build toward war is nicely done – certainly a far cry from the usual brutish summer blockbuster offers of all style and no substance. Not that this is any sort of ponderous dissertation on the fog of war. It’s a fast paced, adrenaline-pumping action flick with just enough head and heart to stand heads over the likes of “Transformers” et al.
It suffers though by comparison with its breathtaking original. Who knew what to expect from the original James Franco/Freida Pinto/John Lithgow ‘original’? What we got was an intelligent, thoroughly credible explanation of where it all began.
But like so many second acts (“Quantum of Solace” after “Casino Royale”, “The Dark Knight” after “Batman Begins”, “X-Men 2” after “X-Men” etc), “”Dawn…” is no “Rise…”
What the original managed to offer, apart from the credible pseudo science was the equally credible knit of relationships between Franco and his dementia-struck father John Lithglow; Caesar and his jailer/tormentor Tom Felton. These provided strong emotional motivations for the actions that followed; they involved us in the drama.
The emotional motivation factor is missing in “Dawn…” Kobo is Caesar’s hawkish opposite number. But whereas Caesar’s relationship with humans was formed by the love he experienced from Will (Franco), his owner (the focus of the first movie), Kobo’s only relationship with humans was shaped by the abusiveness of his human captors. It makes good sense therefore that he should view these humans as a threat not worth negotiating with. But we’re never made to feel Kobo’s sense of angst and anger. It’s stated, never evoked. There are layers to Caesar’s character; Kobo remains an ape with a gun.
The humans equally remain cyphers. We know Ellie (Keri Russell) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) are good guys, but the plot never allows us to know them or build a relationship with them (the way we built with Franco and Lithglow). The baddies are the typical interchangeably gung-ho baddies with big guns (unlike the profit-driven industrialist, Steven – David Oyelowo- whose greed catalyzed the chaos that was to ensue in “Rise…”)
So whereas “Rise…” seduced us into its world and invested us in the bizarre reality of rooting for Caesar and the apes over the humans, “Dawn…” offers more spectacle, but less soul