Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the sleeper hit of the summer of summer of 2011 and was greeted with open arms by critics, who viewed it as a breath of fresh air after a summer of noisy nonsense like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and The Hangover: Part 2. I also liked it quite a bit, but I also thought some of the praise it was getting was a little excessive. It was a reboot of a long dead series, it had to live in the shadow of Tim Burton’s ill-fated 2001 remake of the original Planet of the Apes, it had a dopey title, it came out in a year when Hollywood seemed to be driving off a cliff, and it’s because of these and other reasons that I think it was the beneficiary of lowered expectations that maybe led people to make it into more than it really was. It was a summer blockbuster that had actual character development and a better than average emotional arc, and it also had some very good special effects, but the script let it down in too many places and James Franco was not as effective as a leading man as he should have been. Still, the movie was mostly a success and I was pretty curious to see where they’d take things in its newly made sequel: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
This sequel is set ten years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the group of intelligent Apes being led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) has built its own village in the woods of Northern California. The virus released in the earlier film has killed off most of humanity, but there are survivors, and many of them have gathered in San Francisco and taken up residence in a large tower surrounded by protective walls. As the film begins, a small group of humans are walking through the forest in search of a nearby hydro-electric dam and when they run into a pair of intelligent apes a standoff ensues which ends with one of the apes shot dead. This leads Caser and his compatriots to march to the human compound in a show of force and asserts an ultimatum: “ape home, human home, don’t come back.” The humans are spooked by this but Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), their leader, knows that his people desperately wants power and prepares for war. One of his men, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), thinks there is a peaceful solution and decides to go to the Apes village along with his wife (Keri Russell), son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and a former employee at the dam (Kirk Acevedo) in hopes that they’ll be allowed enough time to complete the repairs on the dam and then leave before tensions rise further.
Emboldened by the success of the previous film, this sequel is surprisingly willing to take non-humans seriously as main characters. The expensive facial recognition CGI has been expanded beyond the Caesar character and there are now numerous prominent ape performance, and while two of these apes can speak, most of them communicate through sign language (meaning that something like 25% of the film is sub-titled). While the last movie that had some almost PETAish messages about man’s cruelty toward animals, this one displays more gray zones rather than simply making the humans the “bad guys” and the apes the “good guys.” Early on we see that the apes feel no real solidarity with other animals; they’re seen hunting deer, killing bears without remorse, and using horses as beasts of burden. It’s also shown that on both sides of the conflict there are well intentioned people who want peace along with the, and in this movie the dumb one-dimensional side characters that just exist to spaz out and cause trouble are just as likely to be apes as they are to be humans.
Those who saw the previous film know that there’s some pretty impressive tech being used in this franchise and if anything it’s been expanded here. There are now multiple CGI apes giving full performances rather than just one, which is more impressive in theory, but I also found that having this impressive CGI applied to many apes kind of made some the individual ape performances seem a little less special. Additionally, it kind of feels like they put so much work into making the apes look real that they kind of phoned it in on some of the other effects in the movie. The hunt scene in the beginning has some kind of fake looking deer and the finale has a very questionable looking explosion. Also, the movie suffers from one of its predecessors weaknesses: poor human characters. I wasn’t too impressed with James Franco’s performance in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but he at least had a pretty well developed character with some distinct traits. Jason Clarke on the other hand seemed like a really generic hero and the idea of making his family participate in the events goes nowhere.
We’re quickly approaching the dog days of the summer movie series, and I think it might be making kind of cranky. I’m kind of getting to that point where I’m getting tired of giving movies passes for only being good by blockbuster status and I’m also feeling like I’ve kind of seeing the same movie over and over again. This one in particular had a feeling of been-there-done-that, at least on a basic story level. The movie borrows liberally from Avatar, which was another movie about a man trying to live among a non-human group while his hotheaded compatriots prepare for war, and of course that wasn’t an overly original movie itself. Still, this movie has a scene where a chimpanzee dual wields a pair of M60 machine guns and that makes up for a lot. I really don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing the movie, it’s better than a lot of its peers and there are technical accomplishments here that are definitely worth seeing. But, at the end of the day, the movie left me with the same feeling its predecessor did in that it impressed me on many levels while still never really seeming like it lived up to its full potential.
***1/2 out of Four