When they announced they would be doing prequels to the 1968 classic Planet of the Apes, I yawned at yet another potential waste of millions of dollars, as I’m sure all others did. Even after the first one turned out surprisingly fine, I was not expecting this. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an excellent movie with an enormous title, which I am willing to overlook for the sheer story-telling and striking visuals of this epic. It’s been a long time since we had a really good trilogy, and we might just be on our way to the next one come 2016, when the third movie in this trilogy releases, leading upto Frankin Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. I think it is more than safe to declare that this is the Jurassic Park for the present decade, an epic blockbuster coupling sci-fi generated creatures with an adventure tale of huge magnitude.
Here you go, my verdict in one line: This is what every big-budget blockbuster ought to be. Combining the choicest special effects and a stunning story, Dawn exceeds all expectations and proves to be one of the best movies all year. I am usually not one to encourage special effects in movies, especially seeing as how they have gotten tackier and ‘shinier’ with age. A perfectly good and recent example of this would be the Hobbit movies, which make Middle Earth look about as formidable as My Little Pony. I’ll probably be coming out with an article on that soon enough. But Matt Reeves’ beautiful imagery and more than life-like apes steal the show and engross you in every shot, every wrinkle on Caesar’s well-sculpted face. Although I do love practical effects, these CGI-generated highly-intelligent apes are truly remarkable, and carry an atmosphere about them that wasn’t to this extent in Rise. The apes in this one look and feel very real, down to the last strand of hair and every wrinkle and texture on their skin. An undeniably commendable work has been done to create the realistic atmosphere of standing among apes, and of the colony itself. Soon after the minute and necessary exposition at the beginning and the title is revealed, the first actual shot we see of the movie is an intense image of Caesar’s calculating eyes. From this very point on, we know for a fact that this is not the same Caesar we saw at the end of Rise, but one which has seen troubling times, grown wiser and now dominating. The very fact that we can tell all this from just a single computer-generated face stands as solid proof for the positive utilization of special effects for the movie. The face of every ape is breathtaking, and immediately conveys to us a certain emotion, negating the need for not only words, but also the extensively used sign language. We might as well have watched the entire movie without any subtitles, as the expressions say it all.
Immense credit has to be given where it is due, and where it is due is the raw and magnetic performance by Andy Serkis as the leader of the apes, Caesar. While I felt the first movie was not as impressive in terms of acting, with both human and apes showing equal amounts of talent, the sequel totally turns the tables against the humans. I have no idea how good the performances by Jason Clarke and the others as humans were, for the mere reason that they were overshadowed to nothingness by the staggering presence of the apes. Even though there is no clear winner in the actual plot of this movie, the intellectual apes win hands down in terms of everything else; from the acting prowess to the very air they exuded. Every scene felt immediately elevated with their presence, and without great actors to fill in their hairy shoes, this movie would have lost something truly special. Every movement and minute scowl on their faces is well drawn out and in turn draw out the exact emotion that the actors beneath these virtual masks portray with an amazing intensity. Intimidating is the first word that comes to mind when describing this tribe, or rather family as Caesar calls it, something I wouldn’t have used in the last one. This goes to show exactly how much more enticing this tale is, and also how far the apes have come in establishing their very own civilization in the Redwood forest.
All of the apes succeed in showcasing their intended emotion through their faces and their bodies. It is very clear that traces of social and political structure have already started to form within the simian population, which in turn leads to unrest and eventual rebellion. The very style and air with which they strut about are telling of the position they command with respect to the apes around them. While Caesar and his family always travels about on horseback, with their shoulders straight and upward, the others are seen to easily fall within his ranks and obey him at the slightest raising of the hand. This command that Caesar exercises over his people is constantly explored and put to test through the length of the movie, from silencing a hundred yaps with a single hand to finally having to fight like a monkey in order to regain control, as apes always follow the strongest branch.
There is quite an interesting parallel drawn between the two, let’s call them cities, one of apes and one of the human survivors. Dawn takes place many years after the events of Rise, where we left the apes receding to form their colony in Redwood and an epidemic starting its rounds. It seems the virus strain 113 that James Franco’s character developed resulted in an unprecedented outbreak of a fatal disease within the human population. The only remaining survivors are those who were genetically immune to the potential effects of the strain, and this includes mainly the camp just north of the bridge separating the forests and what were once human skyscrapers and busy streets. The plot revolves around a small group of survivors who wish to get the nearby dam up and running so that they may receive even limited power supply, but for this, they need to first go through the ape colony who they have just discovered to be smarter and more remarkable than they thought them to be. The humans feel intimidated by the unknown and intellectually challenging apes, as they face the short end of the stick, stripped of their technology and their masses, they cower in fright. But unknown to either group, they are both more similar than they wish to be. Both have clear leadership, with an excellent Gary Oldman (is he ever not?) leading the humans with his speaker and Caesar leading with his hand, although it is seen that the humans are not so easily bent to absolute leadership and hierarchies. Men are not used to being huddled around in small spaces, being bossed around and do not see the need to obey or follow orders. On the other side, we have the apes who, more recent to societal structures, have clear marked hierarchies and a more organized force. But trouble is brewing as always with doubts as to Caesar’s leadership, fuelled by the conniving Koba who was rescued from the lab in the previous movie.
Surprisingly pregnant with metaphors and symbolism, the movie plays out the drama surrounding Caesar’s namesake through a power struggle among apes. Betrayed by his own men, especially the one he rescued, Caesar also represents one half of another Shakespearean work, of two lovers caught in the middle of two conflicted groups, although to a less romantic tone. Caesar is the only ape who truly understands humans not as the evil that his clan think them to be, but as creatures just like apes, capable of showing shades of both virtue and vice. Malcolm, the human protagonist and his closest family are also the only ones who try to maintain peace and live in harmony with the apes. However, Jason Clarke’s character, who the audience is supposed to relate with, seemed blank and empty when sharing the scenes with the iconic Caesar and his apes. This I do not attribute to the failure of the actors as such, but it cannot be overlooked that it was the apes who brought home the emotion and drama in the film. Just as I wrote down that last sentence, Word corrected my grammar from ‘who’ to ‘that’ as the auxiliary for apes. But I would be doing the greatest injustice by abiding, as these simians are not human-like in just intelligence, but in the same ranks as the most emotive human characters in cinema.
It is unnecessary for me to speak of the action, what with it being essentially a movie with apes carrying guns and riding on horses. Some of the most alluring war-scenes were also in this movie, which I believe had the best mass-action sequences for the whole year, rivalling Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As much as it has you roaring through the action, the movie also succeeds in gathering tears manifold. Particular reference is to be had to the arc that Caesar’s adolescent son Blue Eyes goes through, from disobedience, rebellion and distrust to ashamed and apologetic. Although I did miss out on the logical consistency for the apes needing to speak in human tongue for the most evocative dialogue, those are undeniably powerful and close to heart. Also an emotional high-point for the story was the reference to the first movie, where Caesar watches James Franco’s Will in a handheld video of him with a baby Caesar. It is clear that though long dead (probably, but left unsaid) Caesar learns to trust and understand Malcolm and the others through Will. I felt that the story would take us through equally moving rides for the characters of Malcolm’s son, but that was left unsaid with the exception of his connection with the constant pleasure-to-watch orang-utan Maurice. But hey, you will not find me complaining, as the more apes the better.
As history constantly reminds us, the second movie in a trilogy always closes on an unsettling and unfinished note, with a distant drum-roll of things to come. It happened with The Empire Strikes Back, it happened with The Two Towers, and now here it is again with The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second in a trilogy which is sure to attain classic status in the coming years. The few ending scenes also reminded me slightly of The Empire Strikes Back and even The Dark Knight, not for profound reasons, but for the simple fact that all of them have the clearly dominating character watching the other dangling from a great height. The climax, like most other scenes in the film, does not fail to startle and leave your jaws on the ground, bringing to culmination Caesar’s understanding of the apes that he had viewed always as good and pure. The uncanny thing about Dawn is that we cannot see anyone as entirely wrong, which I guess is the theme of the story: neither group is exactly good or evil. Everyone lies in the middle gray. The humans are acting out of fear (of course, who wouldn’t be afraid of an army of imposing, intellectual, speaking apes riding on horses?) and lack of understanding of the apes, the apes act in fear and despise of the humans, which is fuelled on by Koba’s blind thirst for vengeance. Many a times, it feels like a proper war movie, where the audience is veered to peek behind both lines, and understand their rationale. It ends on an ominous note, with both Malcolm and Caesar knowing that war has started, and it will rage on till either race is conquered. Malcolm leaving the scene immediately afterward also shows that now Caesar will have to fend for his race, and go to arms with humans, although he would prefer not to. He must forget, and move on. This also tells us that Malcolm will probably not be present in the third movie, to make way for the inevitable outcome as we know it from the 1968 classic.
Ultimately, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a meaninglessly titled, and yet magnetic thriller of a movie, which I see receiving universal acclaim, for it walks the fine line between explosive entertainment and provoking themes. Unpredictable in every step, there is not a single moment of boredom, even in the silent shots of the apes, equally as striking as Kubrick’s 2001, but in a different light. To talk of the emotional quotient of the film, all I need to say is that I have not felt so strongly for computer-generated animals since Lion King. And if that is not testimony to the skill exercised by this film, I do not know what is. This is the most pleased I have been with a big-budget blockbuster in a long time.