Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Ape not kill ape

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Few blockbusters this summer are likely to provide an image as stirring as an angry chimp on horseback, leaping through a wall of fire with a machine gun blazing in each hand—in 3D. And just as 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes surpassed expectations, so this sequel delivers on its promise and leaves us wanting more—which we’ll almost certainly get.

The story picks up 10 years after the last movie (don’t worry if you don’t remember a thing about it). Humankind has been brought to its knees by a global virus, and genetically enhanced apekind has built its own utopian eco-community in the forests outside San Francisco. Under the sage leadership of alpha-chimp Caesar, they’ve taken on some human traits. They communicate in sign language and halting English, they hunt with spears, they wear makeup, they’ve even established a rudimentary pan-simian education system (lesson one: ape not kill ape). They haven’t seen humans for years, so when a small expedition, led by Jason Clarke, stumbles into apetopia, both sides are taken aback.

As the humans establish tentative bonds with their evolutionary cousins, the inter-species waters start to muddy. Caesar favors cooperation with the humans; his lieutenant, Koba, instinctively distrusts them (and rightly so). It’s a similar scenario on the human side: Clarke favors cooperation, his chief (Gary Oldman) instinctively distrusts the apes.

The whole Planet of the Apes setup has been ripe for metaphor—from slavery and Afro-American revolution to European conquest of the Americas, even the war on terror. But mercifully, there’s no big subtext being troweled on here. If it resembles anything, it’s a Shakespearean tragedy, with its complex web of allegiances and weighty themes of revenge, mercy, loyalty and, of course, what it means to be “human.” Unlike Shakespeare, though, the dialogue is stripped to the bare minimum by the apes’ rudimentary language, which is rather refreshing since everyone gets to the point.

This simian Caesar would certainly sympathize with his Roman namesake—a morally conflicted leader whose authority is under threat. Caesar is firmly the principal character here, and he’s highly watchable. It’s another seamless motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis (though to me Caesar looks more like chimpkind’s answer to Sean Bean) and the film’s biggest weakness is that homo sapiens offers little to rival it. Oldman doesn’t get enough screen time to really register, Clarke is serviceable as a Richard Dreyfuss-type everyman, his wife, Keri Russell, is given little to do but care deeply about everything. As with so many wars, the first casualty is female speaking roles—of either species.

This is primarily a visual experience, though, and on that front it’s spectacular and sophisticated. Both the forest settings and post-apocalyptic San Francisco are rich in detail and atmosphere, the action sequences are thrilling without being flashy, and the apes themselves are uncannily expressive, particularly their eyes. Just the species divide is blurred, so the line between what’s real and computer generated is undetectable here. We’ve arrived at the stage where the soulful expression on the face of a virtual chimp can conjure more sympathy than a real, emoting human. Perhaps that’s the real dawn here.

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