Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Rated PG-13 • {3 out of 5 stars}

I consider the original Planet of the Apes to be one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made. Charlton Heston rounding the corner and melting down at the vision of a washed up Statue of Liberty is in itself one of the more iconic moments in all of film, period. And oddly enough, for all the unnecessary, ridiculous and embarrassing rehashes churned out by the We Don’t Have Any Good New Ideas So Let’s Use an Old One Machine (aka contemporary blockbuster Hollywood), the Planet of the Apes franchise is in some ways bulletproof. This we owe to the ‘70s, as they saw fit to jump the shark on the Apes name long before jumping the shark was downright expected. Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Battle for the Planet of the Apes—four awful sequels released in three short years between 1970 and ‘73. So despite whatever nefarious efforts modern producers and directors might enlist, they are powerless to piss on the franchise because it’s simply already been done. Which is why I can casually shrug at Tim Burton’s 2001 mockery of a reboot, and why I wasn’t appalled at yet another stab being made by Rupert Wyatt in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the latest chapter. Directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), Dawn picks up 10 years down the line from Rise…. The world’s human population has been decimated by the simian virus unintentionally cooked up by San Francisco biotech company Gyn-Sys, with once-captive apes now thriving off their intelligence boom. Caesar, the ape responsible for empowering the primate breakout, is the established and respected leader of a contingent living in the Muir Woods. To the apes’ collective surprise, they one day happen upon a small group of humans looking to generate power from a deserted dam, leading to the apes’ realization that a very small community of homo sapiens is still alive in the city itself. Skeptical of their possible motives, and rightfully so, Caesar leads a force into San Francisco to divide the line between man and ape. But noble human Malcolm (Jason Clarke of Zero Dark Thirty fame) is able to negotiate a brief and unstable peace by assuring Caesar that electrical power is all they seek. But with a stockpile of human weaponry discovered by disgruntled rogue ape Koba, a Shakespearean drama begins to unfold whereupon Caesar meets an untimely demise (or does he?), igniting war between…man and ape. 

Though I jest in tone, I’ll say right now that this is a movie worth seeing for sci-fi fans. While the plot is relatively predictable and the pace of the movie does drag, it’s not outrageously stupid and doesn’t shoot for the moon, nor should it. Because there is no wheel to reinvent here; it’s the eighth film in a 46-year-old franchise. So what really makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes tick is outstanding special effects—these fuckin’ apes look (and sound) real. While I’ll always admire and prefer the costuming and makeup of 1968 Dr. Zaius, there’s something to be said for creating chimps, gorillas and orangutans so realistic you actually feel slightly anxious watching them attack on screen. Beyond the action, though, Dawn… makes a genuine effort to have the apes be the dramatic stars of the film; ape time far outweighs human time, with the apes themselves conveying a wide range of emotion in the process. You look at them like people, and that’s an accomplishment in not just effects, but in writing. Played so well is the humanistic angle, that I’d go as far as to echo the sentiments of a 13-year-old kid sitting next to me, when he coyly remarked, “Was I the only one rooting for the apes?” (The movie’s got some simian heart, is what I’m trying to say here.) And although it’s something of an aside, I would be remiss not to mention Gary Oldman. Yeah, he made a total fool of himself in the media recently, but the guy can flat-out act. His character, Dreyfus, who probably doesn’t occupy more than 15 total minutes of screen time, lends professionalism to the entire cast, similar to a musician being felt but not heard. 

After 120-plus spins on your wristwatch, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ final scene ultimately paves an obvious road for the next installment, which, as one might expect, will be a battle royale between…man and ape. And I think I know who wins. The humans. Wait, no.