BY VINCENT ABBATECOLA
In 2011, the “Planet of the Apes” franchise was given another chance to live on the big screen after Tim Burton’s forgettable 2001 remake of the original. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” directed by Rupert Wyatt, was a prequel that set up a sequence of new stories that would chronicle how Earth became dominated by an intelligent ape civilization. Equipped with a fascinating story and striking visual effects, the film provided hope in the direction where this prequel series was going.
The story of the apes’ rise to supremacy continues in Matt Reeves’ breathlessly exciting prequel-sequel, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” He not only improves on the visuals and furthers the story into a bigger scope, but manages to make a film that’s even better than “Rise,” which was already great to begin with.
In the 10 years since the events of the previous movie, a viral drug that began as a cure for Alzheimer’s disease has caused a global pandemic and killed most of the world’s population, but has given advanced intelligence to apes who have been exposed to it. As the remaining humans try to live on, apes have become the ruling species.
In the devastated city of San Francisco, a large group of survivors who are immune to the virus are led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). They are running out of power and the area of the city they live soon will be in darkness. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) convinces Dreyfus to let him lead a group, including his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his partner Ellie (Keri Russell), into the forest outside the city, where they hope to convince the a recently discovered ape society led by ape “chief” Caesar (Andy Serkis), to let them stay for a few days while they attempt to fix a hydroelectric dam in their territory.
The humans and Caesar, who was once a favorite “pet” of a kind human scientist, get along with each other, but that relationship is at a risk when the second-in-command ape named Koba (Toby Kebbell) begins to question Caesar’s compassion for the humans. Koba and other apes only had experience with the crueler side of humanity prior to the virus wiping out most of human civilization. A power struggle soon puts everyone, both human and ape, in danger.
Andy Serkis, a virtuoso of motion-capture performances, makes a kingly return as Caesar. It’s a true cinematic wonder that he’s able to inject so much emotion into his character, despite the fact that it’s a “motion capture” role, and not his actual self on-screen. Just as he has done with previous motion capture roles such as Gollum in Lord of the Rings and King Kong, his success with interpreting these characters is more than a product of impressive visuals, but also a new way to act for film. With his commitment to embracing this moviemaking technology to deliver excellent work, he gives one of the best performances in a summer tentpole this year.
Toby Kebbell provides the film’s other masterful motion-capture performance as the violent and war-hungry Koba. Kebbell maintains an aggressive attitude throughout the movie, and really triumphs in presenting himself as the anti-Caesar.
Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Kerri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s characters are rather underdeveloped, but we still learn a little bit about them concerning what they lost in the 10 years since the virus outbreak, and they’re able to work their abilities, despite the somewhat limited material they’re given.
Michael Seresin’s cinematography has an abundance of bleak, yet gorgeous imagery, both in the ruined San Francisco and the forest home of the apes. Although they’re all post-apocalyptic, the landscapes are undeniably beautiful to look at.
There are two shots in particular that are very memorable. One comes in a sequence where an army of apes raid the city and it includes a long take in which an ape overtakes a tank and rides on top as it hits a building. I know I’m not doing justice in describing the scene, but you’ll understand its impressiveness when you see it.
The other shot I found the most memorable occurs when Malcolm goes into the city to find medical supplies, and must dodge a horde of apes in one of the city’s buildings. It is a thrilling long-take.
The screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver provides extensive detail on the societal structure of the apes and how they live as the dominant species, and adds to the characterization of the apes that was presented in “Rise.”
The apes have a set of rules to live by, continue using sign language (which is always interesting to watch), can speak some child-level English, and are skilled hunters as exemplified in the opening scene. This gives you an idea of how far they have come since the events of “Rise,” when Caesar first discovers the ability to speak a single word. It all leads to a very interesting viewing experience.
There are some holes in the narrative, as well as a few plot points to be continued, but those story threads will surely be further established in the next film.
Jaffa and Silver also wrote the script to “Rise,” and are accomplished in creating these stories detailing with how humans interact with intelligent beasts. Seeing as they’re two of the screenwriters for next summer’s “Jurassic World,” I’m very much looking forward to seeing them switch out apes for dinosaurs. Even naming the main human character “Malcolm” could be a nod to Dr. Ian Malcolm, who is Jeff Goldblum’s character in the first two “Jurassic Park” films.
Director Matt Reeves is someone with experience in telling stories that involve human characters coexisting in a world with strange creatures. His first major film, “Cloverfield,” featured a group of friends dodging a rampaging monster in New York City, and his second film, “Let Me In” (an American remake of the Swedish horror film, “Let the Right One In”), featured a child befriending a young vampire girl.
He continues this storytelling trend by expanding the “Planet of the Apes” mythology in a narrative that places humans and intelligent apes in close proximity to one another. The action sequences Reeves creates have an abundance of sci-fi thrills, just like the Golden Gate Bridge scene from “Rise.”
Reeves is already signed on to direct the third installment, which is set for a July 2016 release. Having created a sequel that exceeds the film that came before it, I’m looking forward to finding out how he plans to move the story forward, seeing as “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” crafts its ending to prepare you for a continuation of the narrative.
Final grade: A-