After five films, two short-lived TV series (one animated), and an ill-conceived, poorly executed attempted reboot, the Planet of the Apes franchise seemed all but dead, but where potentially profitable, studio-owned intellectual property is concerned, franchises never truly die, they just go into suspended animation, the better for moviegoers to forget the last reboot and for the studios to find a new way into the series. Against all (or most) odds, Fox’s latest (and last) attempt to reinvigorate a seemingly moribund franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, succeeded beyond all expectations (critically and more importantly, commercially for Fox). Credit went to the husband-and-wife writing team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and the directing talent of Rupert Wyatt (a relative unknown at the time). While Wyatt stepped away from the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Jaffa and Silver returned, with Mark Bomback sharing screenwriting duties and Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) as the director.
When we meet Caesar (Andy Serkis), a genetically altered, super-smart chimpanzee and ape liberator, again, he’s leading a thriving, bustling ape community north of San Francisco in Muir Woods. It’s been ten years since the so-called “simian flu,” initially created to treat and/or reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s, effectively turned Homo sapiens from the dominant species to secondary or tertiary species, the survivors (1 in every 500) dwindling even further, due to other, formerly non-deadly diseases and wars over resources and territory. Reeves carefully delineates ape culture, a mix of chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans, their individual and collective intelligence raised to human levels due to the same experimental drug that gave Caesar his hyper-intelligence. The apes communicate primarily through sign language, with the occasional word or phrase, usually Caesar’s, thrown in. All signs point to a burgeoning pre-Neolithic culture with open-air housing structures built from the surrounding forest, hunting (and presumably gathering) for sustenance, and a seemingly rigid, gendered hierarchy (i.e., patriarchy). Caesar rules benevolently with the unspoken consent and assent of the apes he freed a decade earlier, their families, and other apes that have made their way to Caesar’s community.
While Caesar still thinks fondly of (some) humans, specifically his adopted father, mentor, and friend, Will Rodman (James Franco, via briefly via an old video recording), the other apes, specifically Koba (Toby Kebbell), a physically and mentally scarred bonobo once held (and tortured) as a laboratory animal, hates humans without question or doubt. As Caesar’s second-in-command, Koba constantly counsels for conflict, aggression, and later, when humans have encroached into ape territory, for all-out war. The Caesar-Koba relationship mirrors a similar one found in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ closest analog from the early series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (with not dissimilar results), up to and including the presence of Caesar’s teen son and apparent heir, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), who falls under Koba’s corrosive, species-supremacist influence. The other apes, however, remain loyal to Caesar, at least as long as the status quo remains unchanged and they continue to live in relative peace and safety.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ultimately hinges on the resolution of Caesar’s conflict with Koba (peacemaker vs. warmonger, peaceful coexistence vs. preemptive war), but the human characters still play an important, if diminished, role. Women are even more marginalized, with only one female character, Ellie (Keri Russell), a nurse, given semi-prominence. From one perspective, the lesser human role represents a narrative flaw or weakness. From another perspective, it’s fitting, a reflection of where Homo sapiens find themselves post-simian flu outbreak. Reeves parallels Caesar and Caesar’s family (a wife, Cornelia (Judy Greer), and two sons) with Malcolm (Jason Clarke), one of the leaders of a struggling human settlement in San Francisco. While the ape colony has grown into the hundreds (if not thousands) in the ten-year interim before the advent of the simian flu and Caesar and Malcolm’s present, the humans number in the low hundreds. They’re also low on fuel and desperate to find an alternative. Only a blocked dam deep in ape territory offers the possibility of a power source, but that necessitates a truce between wary apes and fearful humans, with both sides repeatedly erring on the side of distrust and fear.
Of course, it’s called Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for a reason. The ending (or end) is more or less a foregone conclusion, but as important as where the second film leaves Caesar and the other characters, the how and the why prove to be just as important. Always rich in potent metaphors, the Apes series always seem to reach down into our collective unconscious to unearth, expose, and literalize our fears and anxieties (late ’60s fears of nuclear war and annihilation, not to mention racial discrimination, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualism). Dawn of the Planet of the Apes strongly continues that tradition, reflecting ever-present fears about the end of American political, cultural, and military hegemony, with a new world order (or a newer one) ruthlessly replacing the old, decaying one, the fracturing effects of tribalism and xenophobia, and our self-destructive obsession and firearm fetishization, minus the ambiguous optimism that concluded the five-film series in 1975. The culprit, as always, is human frailty and fallibility, here compounded by the recognition that self-aware, intelligent apes, as primates driven by some (if not all) of our primal instincts (for safety, for security, for power, etc.) will make many of the same mistakes we’ve made.
Downbeat tone aside, Reeves—by his own admission, an original series super-fan—deftly balances weighty themes with intimate character drama (mostly on the ape side, with Caesar’s continuing growth as ape leader the focal point) and set-piece spectacle. Reeves doles out the set pieces with regularity, but his strong storytelling skills (and sense) never let the set pieces overwhelm the rest of the story. Whether it’s the opening scene, an elaborately choreographed hunt illustrating the apes’ awe-inspiring tactical and strategic skills or, inevitably, the armed confrontation between the apes and humans (including one breathtaking 360-degree shot in the middle of the film’s central set piece), or the final confrontation atop a crumbling human-made tower, Reeves’ keeps the sightlines clear, the camera steady, and the editing smooth. The combination of motion- or performance capture (with Serkis, as usual, a standout) and CG has improved by veritable leaps and bounds. It’s practically next-level CG, not to mention worthy of awards recognition. The apes are more expressive and believable (easily passing the eye test) than they were just three short years ago, a testament once again, to WETA Digital.
Reeves’ exemplary turn behind the camera bodes well for the sequel (he’s set to return as director). And while Dawn of the Planet of the Apes feels like the middle chapter in a trilogy, resolving the intra-species and inter-species conflicts, it leaves the (inevitable, inexorable) resolution of the larger human-ape conflict for the next film where, arguably, it belongs. Or maybe the next film will jump ahead decades, if not centuries later and take us where the series and the failed reboot have gone before, to a completely ape-dominated world where Reeves and his collaborators can explore a new set of themes and metaphors with contemporary social relevance with, of course, the scale, scope, and spectacle audiences have come to expect from the series.