It is not every day that a loyal moviegoer in Fresno or anywhere else in the world comes out of a film that they really enjoyed, find themselves wishing for a sequel, and then finally get that sequel that turns out to be everything and more that they had hoped for. And yet, to this examiner's surprise and delight, that is what has been happening with the new Planet of the Apes franchise.
In August of 2011, 20th Century Fox released Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a reboot of the classic science fiction franchise originally based on the science fiction novel La Planète des singes (translated as The Monkey Planet) by Pierre Boulle. The original film series began with the science fiction classic starring Charlton Heston about a man who finds himself on a world where humans are treated as primitive savages, like animals, and the world is instead ruled by a race of super-intelligent apes. Planet of the Apes became a major hit and later spawned four sequels throughout eh sixties and seventies: Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. After the fifth film, the story came to a close (on the big screen at least) until 2001, when director Tim Burton released his own remake of the original film starring Mark Walhberg, but sadly this retelling was met with poor reception from fans and critics.
But in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the franchise was remade successfully with it's telling the story of Caesar, a chimpanzee who, after experimentation from a major pharmaceutical corporation, gains superhuman intellect and over the course oft eh story overcomes human ridicule and mistreatment to become a leader to his kind as he declares insurrection against humans, save for his former human owner Will Rodman (played by James Franco). The film impressed this examiner with it's heavy, character-centric story, impressive CGI, strong performances (especially Andy Serkis's motion capture portrayal of Caesar), and especially for how it created fully memorable characters for the apes themselves, making them even more crucial to the story then the human characters. I came out of that film feeling quite satisfied and hoping that a sequel would spawn out of it because it definitely deserved it.
Well now, not only have I gotten my wish, but the sequel turned out to be even better than it's predecessor.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place ten years after the events of the first film, during which time human civilization has fallen on the verge of collapse in the wake of the ALZ-113 virus, or "Simian Flu". Now, a middle aged Caesar (played by Andy Serkis) leads and governs a new generation of apes in their own functioning community in the Redwoods outside what remains of San Francisco. This community includes many of his old comrades, including a chimpanzee named Koba (played by Toby Kebbel), who had long been experimented on at Genisys Labs prior to his liberation by Caesar. During a hunting party, Caesar's son Blue Eyes Blue Eyes (played by Nick Thurston), is scarred by an attacking grizzly bear. Caesar is then called back to his home in the ape city where his sick wife has given birth to a newborn son.
Soon after this the apes come across a small party of armed human survivors traveling through the in the forest led by a man named Malcolm (played by Jason Clarke). In a panic, one of the human shoots one o the apes and Caesar, deciding against retaliation, orders the humans back to where they came from. It turns out that there were a large pocket of humans that were genetically immune to the virus that have now established a heavily armed safe haven in the heart of an abandoned, post-apocalyptic San Francisco, led by a man named Dreyfus (played by Gary Oldman). Caesar later leads the apes into a face-to-face confrontation with the humans at their own gates where he speaks, yes speaks, before all of them and orders Malcolm, the safe-haven's co-founder, to not enter the apes' territory ever again. However, the humans are on the verge of depleting their fuel so Malcolm convinces Dreyfus to give him three days to make peace with the apes in order to gain access to a hydroelectric generator at a dam in their territory, which could provide long-term power to the city. Dreyfus agrees, but his inherent distrust of the apes leads him to begin arming the survivors in preparation for a coming war.
Meanwhile, Koba keeps encouraging Caesar to wipe out the humans in their state of desperation. But seeing potential for peace, Caesar agrees to allows Malcolm access to the dam provided they work unarmed. Time and time again, Caesar is unable to successfully teach Blue Eyes about the humans' capacity for good he witnessed growing up. As Malcolm, his partner Ellie (played by Keri Russel), and son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) work on the generator, they do indeed form a bond with the apes. But Koba spies on the humans arming themselves for war and confronts Caesar directly about his tolerance of the humans, leading to a violent altercation and a severely bruised friendship. It seems as though both sides are poised to get what they want--the human getting the means to continue surviving, the apes to be left alone by the humans--and peace seems within reach, but a terrible deception from within and mounting tensions from both sides may soon lead to one final war for control of the planet itself.
All of the things that worked the best about Rise continue to work well here, and the few criticisms I had about that film are mostly fixed this time. There are not a lot of homages or references to the previous films this time around, save for a touching reference to James Franco's character seen in one rather moving scene near the climax. Like in the first film, Dawn focuses on making a solid film, not just a chance for a director to merely adapt a familiar franchise to their vision like the Tim Burton film was doing.
But most importantly of all, also like the first film, it keeps the core story not on human characters but the apes themselves, allowing them to truly be the stars of their own film, a recurring fault of other franchises like, say, the Transformers films. Caesar has come full circle this time, going from a young apes growing up in a human home with a nurturing human owner into a true leader of his people against the evil's he has seen in other humans. That all remains from the previous film, however this time we get to go beyond that and see Caesar has started a family of his own, with a sick wife, a young-adult son and now a second newborn son as well. But we see that while Caesar is not unafraid to resort to violence against humans, he is also able to recognize the inner good in them, having grown up with that himself, so he recognizes that Malcolm and his party are not a threat (save for one person that is) so much as a group of people who are desperate and are just looking for a means to stay alive. Seeing Caesar's arc progress throughout the film to the final, perhaps inevitable note at the ending is powerful, emotional, and engaging to watch.
Running counter to Caesar's arc is that of Malcolm, a human man who, in a way, is also a leader of his people, being the co-founder of this last human colony. Also like Caesar he is a family man, who lost his wife and is now left to watch over his own young adult son, with the aid of new girlfriend Ellie, who herself had lost a daughter to the virus years before. It is one of those kind of relationships where what the two character's have in common isn't put into words on screen but the audience is able to instantly recognize it. Their truce of sorts is certainly of shaky ground, but it works because these are two character who are both out to preserve the same things, their families and the futures of their species, whatever that may be.
There are other strong relationships in here as well. I enjoyed the conflicted relationship that forms between Caesar and his son, Blue Eyes, with the son growing further and further away from his father due to his sympathy for the the humans. Caesar also has the loyal trust of Maurice, the orangutan he befriended in the first film, as well as the other returning ape character from Rise as well. The human romance between Malcolm and Ellie is not focused on much, but that is okay as I think it would have been too intrusive to have a full-blown human love story in the midst of all of this plot. Still, their relationship is convincing and I really do buy into the family dynamic shared between Malcolm, his son, and new partner Ellie.
In my review of Rise, my biggest criticism of that film was that a lot of the human villains came across and one note, and even in this film there is one member of Malcolm's company who retains an irrational hatred of the apes throughout his time on screen, but at least in his case I can understand that kind of over-aggression; he's living in a post-apocalyptic world and is taking his anger out on the supposed 'enemy' of humanity. There is also one more, sort of, human villain in the form of Gary Oldman's character Dreyfus, but he is only a bad guy in that he is arming the human survivors to prepare themselves for a bending war and because of the drastic measures he takes to "save the human race" by the ending. He also get some brief but juicy justification for his world view at one point as well, an emotional moment that serve as yet another testament to Gary Oldman's incredible talent.
But for whatever minor weaknesses the film may have with the human antagonists, it makes up for completely with the characterization of Koba. This character, first introduced as a tortured lab monkey in the first film, has developed an intense, completely savage hatred of humans and, really, nobody can blame him for that, especially as he points out all of the scars and bruises from his past experiences. The arguments he gets into with Caesar are some of the most powerful in the film; it kind of reminds me of Xavier and Magneto is a sense, where both apes want to preserve the safety of their own kind, but while Caesar wants to strive for peaceful co-existence (more or less) with the humans, Koba believes that apes will never be safe until the humans are totally wiped out. Caesar is usually stern and reserves (I stress usually), while Koba is prone to violent outbursts. He even provides two moments of unexpected comic relief, in the case of the second moment it comes right before he takes a violent turn that sends his character done the monstrous path he follows for the rest of the film. I won't say much more, but I will say that Koba is easily one of the best villains of the summer so far.
The action in this film is also leaps and bounds above what was seen in the first film. While the rampage of the apes through San Francisco in Rise was certainly impressive, Dawn takes that sequence and turns it into a full-blown war film. The film opens up with a dynamically shot sequence of the apes in the forest as they hunt for food and at one point they have to fight a grizzly bear. Once a pivotal moment occurs mid way through the story, things suddenly get vicious as apes launch a full blown attack on the human compound, both leaping through the air and riding on horseback, as humans gun them down. We see bullet fly, fires engulf the screen, and too many from either side fall to their doom. The final battle is grand and epic, especially the final confrontation between Caesar and Koba.
Weta Digital should also be applauded for their exceptional work here. The screen is populated with hundred of CGI apes that all look completely convincing and some even distinguishable. It is a testament to how far motion capture has come that these apes look so spectacular. One pioneering innovation was a head-mounted camera that was attached to a harness the actor wore on their head while in the motion capture suit, the camera meant to better capture the exact moment of the actor's face while performing so that animators could directly feed that data into the faces of the CG characters; this technique has also been used on other recent films like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot.
Finally, the film benefits from some terrific performances. Andy Serkis steals the show, and even gets top billing, as Caesar. Serkis has become the master of motion capture acting and his commitment to every role he plays always amazes me, and whenever he plays Caesar, he amazes with how he blends the actions of chimpanzees with human mannerisms, this time allowing even more humanity to come through in his performance. I don't care what other people may think, this man is acting his butt off whether he physically appears on screen or not. Jason Clarke is also strong as Malcolm, delivering a believable and sympathetic performance that immediately sells the sincerity and selflessness of this man, as well as his desperation; his scenes with Serkis are the glue that holds the film together. Gary Oldman is sadly not as present in the film as one might expect as Dreyfus, but he brings his usual masterful skill to this part, making this part one of his most sympathetic villainous roles; in fact, his character isn't really a villain at all, just a guy who has lost a lot and is doing what he feels he must to save his own race. Keri Russell is also, sadly, also limited in her role as Ellie, but when she is on screen she is also very convincing and her relationship with Clarke feels natural and unintrusive as is. Toby Kebbell makes for a awesome, savage villain as Koba, his motion capture work rivaling even the master himself, Mr. Serkis. In fact, after seeing his work in this role, it makes this examiner actually look forward to seeing what he may do as Doctor Doom in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot. Judy Greer, like Oldman and Russell, is limited in her screen time as Cornelia, Caesar's wife, but her scenes are very tender as she sells her love for her husband and family without even speaking. Kodi Smit-McPhee is natural and likable as Malcolm's son, Alexander, playing the part with a mix of fear, fascination, and as we see in his scenes with the orangutan Maurice, a friendliness and open-mindedness, a positive example in a a story about racial tension and tolerance. Other performances, both as human and as apes, include Jocko Sims as Werner, Terry Notary as Rocket, Kirk Acevedo as Carver, Karin Konoval as Maurice, Enrique Murciano as Kempt, Nick Thurston as Blue Eyes, Kevin Rankin as McVeigh, Doc Shaw as Ash, and Keir O'Donnell as Finney.
Overall, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is fantastic, emotional, and even socially relevant science fiction film that builds on and fixes the mistakes of its predecessor to give audiences a truly awesome experience. Like it's predecessor, it proves that having a main cast of characters made up of non human beings does not mean that they cannot be utilized effectively to carry a powerful story. It does have a few characters who got shafted in screen time, but in comparison to everything else the film accomplishes, that is no complaint at all. Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter was right when he said that it was The Empire Strikes Back of the franchise; truly something sci-fi fans, or fans of great movies in general, should not miss out on. This examiner gives it five stars.