Among the summer movies of 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an extremely pleasant surprise. The film was released in the first weekend of August, away from the gridlock of June and July, and typically not when blockbuster franchises hit theaters.
Besides hitting theaters when vacations are winding up and kids are thinking about going back to school, Rise was also made by an unknown director in Rupert Wyatt, had an uncertain lead actor in James Franco and shouldered the disappointment of Tim Burton’s 2001 failed attempt at a franchise reboot. Oh, and all of those apes were now going to be CGI creations, rather than actors in suits and make-up.
Those lowered expectations allowed Rise to swoop in under the radar. Fans of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise, sci-fi movies and big summer spectacles went to the theater hoping to see a promising origin story that took the saga back to its very beginnings, which had been done successfully with Batman, James Bond and Star Trek.
What moviegoers got was an unexpectedly smart, well-written and well-acted film that didn’t try to blow people away with spectacular special effects and overblown set pieces. This was a story that started out small, with Franco’s scientist attempting to create a cure for Alzheimer’s that would save his father.
Along the way, the scientist forms a bond with a chimpanzee named Caesar, whose mother was a test subject for the drug. As he grows up, Caesar develops human-like intelligence and emotional characteristics. All of those traits were captured beautifully by Andy Serkis and his motion-capture performance.
Actually, Rise did attempt to impress viewers with its special effects. But rather than bring superheroes or giant robots to life, the geniuses at Weta Digital tried to create an ape whose physical features and movements looked real. More importantly, these CGI creations had to be believable as sentient beings, conveying thoughts and emotions so well that audiences would be drawn in and find these characters compelling.
Mission absolutely accomplished. After watching the movie, I remember going back to my car amazed that I really cared about a CGI chimpanzee as the story progressed. Obviously, Weta’s digital wizardry had so much to do with that. But it was built on the foundation of Serkis’ performance. He depicted Caesar’s mental and emotional development, his conflict of loyalty to his fellow apes and compassion for the humans that raised him.
At the time, many (including myself) thought Serkis warranted serious consideration for a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards. Even if he was clothed in digital effects, Serkis became someone else — something else — and was utterly convincing in doing so. No, Serkis wouldn’t have beaten out Christopher Plummer (for Beginners) at the 2012 Oscars. But he was arguably a better nominee than Max von Sydow (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) or Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn) that year.
So does Dawn of the Planet of the Apes achieve the same objectives as its predecessor? Or has this sequel lost its intelligence and thoughtfulness underneath bolder, grander widescreen spectacle and try to overwhelm the screen with loads of more CGI apes?
Well, it’s a different story this time around. Caesar’s world has naturally become bigger. He’s no longer a laboratory experiment experiencing freedom and enlightenment. Following up on the events of Rise, he’s become the leader of an ape revolution. And as the end of that first movie hinted, a virus created by the supposed Alzheimer’s cure (called “Simian flu”) has spread across the Earth and wiped out a significant portion of the human race. Apes now rule the planet.
Yet just because this new world doesn’t initially show apes interacting with humans, that doesn’t mean that Serkis and his fellow motion-capture performers aren’t allowed to express the same sort of nuanced performances seen in Rise.
This movie takes place in a completely different setting, and director Matt Reeves uses the opening of the film to portray the world the apes now live in. They communicate with each other largely through sign language (with subtitles for viewers). We see a species that’s learning how to talk and speak, and establishing the rules of this civilization that the apes are attempting to build.
That might sound boring, but it most certainly is not. Because once again, the actors portraying the apes and the digital effects team bringing the creatures to life are completely believable and compelling. They have to carry the film for large stretches and do so convincingly.
Caesar may not initially convey the same emotions and vulnerabilities that he did in the previous film, but he has to maintain a stoic demeanor as the spiritual and cultural leader of this society. But we see that facade melt later on when Caesar’s wife (played by Judy Greer) gives birth to their second child.
Eventually, however, humans have to enter the picture. It’s almost a disappointment when they do, because we know conflict will ensue and the tranquil world the apes have created for themselves will soon be unsettled. (Plus, the apes were just so damn fun to watch!) The humans’ presence is even more disruptive when the first one we see — and the apes encounter — (played by Kirk Acevedo) has a gun.
Some might perceive this as a bit of social commentary. Though significant unease exists between humans and apes, it’s only when guns enter the equation that the tension escalates and all-out war between the two species seems all but inevitable.
I suppose it would be naive to think that there isn’t some sort of statement being made by the filmmakers here. But I didn’t feel like this was some endorsement of gun control in sci-fi clothing, though anyone who chooses to see it that way might feel otherwise.
Yet the best science fiction has often presented some sort of comment on our current culture, turning a mirror on us. Even without the presence of firearms, a major theme of the story is what happens when violence is introduced into a society and the destructive effects it creates. “Ape don’t kill ape” is a foundational rule of the apes’ civilization.
That’s not to say Dawn is entirely a thinking man’s blockbuster. While it does have quieter character moments and manages to give the central players compelling backstory in short amounts of time, the movie also has the big set pieces you expect from a summer blockbuster.
The inevitable showdown between the humans and apes on the dilapidated streets of San Francisco does not disappoint, and the image of the warmongering ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) charging forward on a horse while firing two machine guns could be a lasting one (though I doubt it will be defining). The same holds true for the climactic fight that is thrilling and — most importantly, since it’s almost entirely a CGI creation —coherent. The battle doesn’t challenge believability nor does it go too far and pound you senseless. So many directors of current blockbuster fare should learn from this.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes demonstrated that big summer movies don’t have to be brainless. They can tell a story, present intriguing themes and allow for compelling performances. The fear was that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes would cede to the Bigger, More, More Bigger! sensibility that typically plagues sequels. (Though in recent years, the second chapter of these tentpole trilogies have typically been the best.)
It’s once again a pleasant surprise that this movie shows that bigger and grander does not have to be stupider. As a result, Reeves and crew may have given us the best movie of the summer.