It’s been three years since 20th Century Fox attempted to reboot its beloved “Planet of the Apes” franchise with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” a dark and dreary slice of dystopia that nonetheless performed well enough at the box office to have the suit and tie guys thinking they were on to something. A cookie-cutter “Rise of the Planet of the Apes 2” seemed as inevitable as telepathic mutants after nuclear armageddon.
Thank The Lawgiver they did better than that.
Ten years have passed on screen as “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” opens, and the obligatory prologue which details how “the simian flu” decimated the human race and left the pitifully small number of survivors to fend for their themselves in a world without functioning governments, is thankfully brief. We’re then thrust into a sequence that’s both thrilling and unnerving, in which über-ape Caesar, again the result of state-of-the-art CGI and a startlingly nuanced motion capture and voice performance by Andy Serkis, leads a tribe of apes on a horseback and tree-limb hunt. The music for this sequence deliberately channels the spooky György Ligeti chants from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which came out in 1968,the same year as the original “Planet of the Apes.”
The apes are already doing better than their human counterparts. They live in Muir Woods outside a San Francisco in ruins, and the fact that they’re writing their laws on the walls, and have campfires and torches burning all over the place gives us some clue that things have changed. Even the establishing shots of Caesar’s ape colony tell us things have changed in 21st century multiplexes, as well. Michael Seresin’s cinematography is lush, verdant and deep with shadows, but there’s also barely a handful of shots in the entire movie that haven’t been digitally augmented. As with Serkis’ lead performance, it’s difficult to tell where nature leaves off and technology begins.
This sequel, directed by Matt Reeves from a script by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback, is a genuine rarity. For one thing, it’s better than its predecessor. For another, it’s a summer tentpole that delivers some heart and brains in addition to big ticket production values and paint-by-number set pieces. It’s eye-filling though, make no mistake about that. This may be the most astonishing Hollywood movie visually since “Blade Runner.” And Reeves is a directorial upgrade. This is a tighter, faster-paced movie than its predecessor, as well as less morose, dark story though it may be.
This isn’t the story of the decline of humanity, which has been done to death anyway. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is about an inevitable collision between the ascendant apes and the dwindling, desperate humans, whose primary resources, in the wake of long-unpaid electric bills, are guns and liquor. No human characters return from the first movie, although there are brief photographic and video references to James Franco’s character. The links to the first movie are the apes: Serkis’ Caesar, the droll, gentle orangutang Maurice (Karin Konoval) and the angry, simmering Koba (Toby Kebbell). Fans of the original series might recall that Charlton Heston, who starred in the original 1968 “Planet of the Apes,” only returned for a cameo in the first sequel, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” It was Roddy McDowall, who played the chimpanzee Cornelius, and then his son Caesar, who appeared in all the movies except ”Beneath.” Once we got to the Planet of the Apes, it was always about the apes - not the humans.
There are human characters on board here, played by a distinguished including Jason Clarke (“Zero Dark Thirty”), Gary Oldman, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee, whom Reeves directed in “Let Me In.” Russell and Smit-McPhee give impressively nuanced performances in small roles. Clarke’s character wants to live in peace with the apes, as Caesar hopes to live in peace with humans. The audience knows this isn’t going to happen. Winnowed down though the human race may be, there are still plenty of idiots. And Koba proves to be as violent and dangerous as any human tyrant.
The problem, if any, is that the audience is going to figure way too much out ahead of time. Jaffa, Silver and Bomback’s script doesn’t provide a lot of surprises. Given that, the story is perhaps surprisingly engrossing. Some of the credit for that may be due to the quality of the characterizations and acting, which not only let us accept the ape characters as characters, not just animals, let alone special effects, but gets us to care about them as well.
It bears noting that Serkis is at the very least trailblazing in a new school of cinema acting. He is, from all accounts, present on set during principal photography, in a motion capture suit, doing scenes with the rest of the cast. Caesar is defined not only by Serkis’ voice, but by his body language, movements and facial expressions. He is specializing in a form of acting that didn’t even exist when the original “Planet of the Apes” was shot, because it also requires a technology that didn’t exist then either.
The violence, much of it digitally rendered, is fairly strong, and along with language accounts for the PG-13 rating. There are scenes likely to scare small children. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was shot in 3D, and the presentation is high quality. Waiting for Red Box is not recommended.
The bottom line, which should be written darkly in black ink, is that 20th Century Fox has certainly established what it wanted to. A franchise rests not on a successful first installment but on a successful sequel. They will have that here - there is ample room for another installment when the credits roll - with a better sense of the formula future stories will rely upon. That those stories will certainly depict a dark and foreboding future with little room for humanity only underscores this series’ individuality.