Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The past decade has not been kind to the Planet of the Apes franchise. The series that started off with the masterpiece starring Charleton Heston has most recently seen one atrocious remake with a scowling Mark Wahlberg and one campy reboot with a confounded James Franco. The iconic status of the original has been a mixed blessing for anyone wishing to follow it up: on the one hand, the premise presents no shortage of possibilities of where to go; on the other hand, most film-makers feel the need to both directly acknowledge the original and try to one-up it. When your film features the former Draco Malfoy growling Heston’s “Taking your stinking paws off me” line before he’s killed by CGI simians, that should tell you that you’ve taken a wrong turn.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does something even its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, failed to do: it distinguishes itself. Oh, it still pays homage to the franchise (the plot is similar to 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes), but for once attempts to stand on its own two hand-like feet, even with the weight of its legacy bearing down on it.
Set a decade after the events of Rise, this film begins with news anchors and stock footage expositing how the “Simian Flu” has reached worldwide epidemic levels, decimating most of the world’s human population. Meanwhile, deep within Muir Woods, intelligent ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) has become the leader of a growing tribe of wise apes. When their woods are stumbled upon by a group of human survivors – led by the brow-beaten Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) – Caesar attempts an uneasy truce that, paradoxically, results in the very sort of violence he wanted to avoid.
The best thing I can say about this film is that it’s a story of ideas. No, that isn’t right. The best thing I can say is that it follows through on those ideas What the film lacks in believable dialogue or significant female characters, it makes up for in its showcase of the best of intentions going horribly wrong. There are no outright evil characters, just desperate ones who give into their worst instincts for the sake of protecting what’s theirs. There actually are heroes, but they’re conflicted by the idea that they will have to kill or destroy for the sake of the greater good. For the most part, this is pulled off admirably.
Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) has done with the franchise what no other director has done since the ‘70s: make an Apes film with crowd-pleasing action, not use said action to short-change the more heady ideas of the story, and pull off a story that makes one genuinely eager for the next installment.
Plus the film drops James Franco for the sight of an ape on horseback jumping through fire whilst shooting two military-grade machine guns. That’s a win-win for everyone.
Rating: ***1/2 (Three-and-a-half)