Thursday, July 24, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes was written my Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and directed by Matt Reeves (who also directed Cloverfield). It's the sequel to 2011's Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, which was a reboot of the Planet Of The Apes franchise of the 1960s and 1970s.

Andy Serkis, motion-capture actor extraordinaire, once again stars as Caesar the chimp, and actually gets top billing this time. That's pretty darned impressive for a man pretending he's an ape!

Dawn (Sorry, I'm not calling it DOTPOTA) is the rare sequel that actually surpasses the original film, taking its rightful place alongside The Godfather Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, ALIENS and Terminator 2. It actually builds on and expands the story, rather than rehashing the original like most sequels do.

The filmmakers did an amazing job of creating a storyline with an aura of doomed inevitability, that's almost like a Shakespearean tragedy. You want so much for the two species to get along, but you just know it's never going to happen, which is heartbreaking. 

Dawn is also surprisingly smart, especially for a big budget summer tentpole film. The characters– human as well as ape are all well written, and they all act believably. Amazingly no one does anything overtly stupid just for the sake of the plot. That's a rarity among summer movies.


The Plot:
Ten years after the previous film, the Simian Flu virus has nearly wiped out humanity while genetically augmenting apes. That's some virus!

A group of immune human survivors have gathered in the ruins of San Francisco, while a shrewdness of apes (believe it not, that's what you call a group of them), led by the chimpanzee Caesar has built a colony in nearby Muir Woods.

The humans, led by two men named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) are anxious to repair a nearby hydroelectric dam to provide power to the decimated city. Unfortunately the dam lies deep inside ape territory. Can the two groups work out a solution and coexist peacefully, or will the situation decay into all-out war?

• Andy Serkis reportedly received a seven figure paycheck to reprise his role as Caesar. More power to him I guess, but man, that's a lot of dough to act like an chimp!

• As the movie opens, Caesar and his tribe are hunting a herd of elk. Whoops! I was under the impression that apes are vegetarians. 

After a bit of admittedly spotty research, I found that chimps are usually vegetarians, but will occasionally consume small quantities of meat if there's nothing else around. Gorillas and orangutans though, are strict plant eaters.

These are mutated, intelligent talking apes we're talking about though, so maybe they didn't get the "don't eat meat" memo. 

• The film takes quite a chance by spending a big chunk of the film among the apes, most of whom can only speak a word or two and communicate primarily through sign language (with subtitles). This could have backfired big time, but surprisingly it works. No doubt due to the efforts of the motion-capture actors.

• It's extreme nitpicking time! Why is this movie called Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes? Doesn't "dawn" usually signify a beginning? They really should have switched the titles and called the first film Dawn and this one Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

• Things I learned from this movie: The Koba character is a bonobo. Chimpanzees are divided into two species: the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and the bonobo (Pan paniscus). They look more or less like the common chimp, but have longer legs and a darker face. I did not know that.

This is the first time an Apes film has ever included more than the classic three ape species (chimps, gorillas and orangutans).

• Kody Smit-McPhee stars as Malcolm's son Alexander. What a difference a couple of years makes! I didn't even recognize him. On the left is how he appeared in 2009's.The Road, and on the right is how he appears now. He looks like a completely different person!

• Apparently the studio couldn't afford to hire Gary Oldman full time. He appears near the beginning of the film, then literally disappears for a good hour or more before finally showing up again near the end.

• Kirk Acevedo (of Fringe) plays Carver, an ape-hating human who causes a good deal of the trouble between the two species. Carver is the movie's Designated Asshole: a character who acts like a jerk for seemingly no reason other than because the script says so (think Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films).

On the other side of the spectrum, Koba (mo-capped by Toby Kabbell) is the DA for the apes. Koba's got a legitimate reason for hating humans though, as he was kept in a cage and tortured by human scientists before being freed by Caesar. In fact, his motivations were so compelling I found myself almost siding with him, despite his despicable actions.

• When Koba wants to sneak into the human city, the guards are initially wary of the large intelligent chimp. He then starts hamming it up and acting like a trained circus chimp, which puts his foes at ease. And then he kills them.

Koba's "monkeyshines" scenes were very well done.

"Koba" was also the nickname of Joseph Stalin during his time as a revolutionary in Soviet Georgia. Coincidence, or intentional?

• One big plus about this film: there are no cutesy callbacks to the original series this time around. The previous movie was absolutely lousy with them. Every time you turned around someone was shouting, "It's a madhouse!" or some such line. I counted at least 21 callbacks or references in Rise. It was tiresome after a while. Fortunately the filmmakers seem to have got all that out of their system.

I'm aware that Caesar's son is named Blue Eyes (not "Bright Eyes"), and I suppose you could argue that's a shout out to Planet Of The Apes, but it's different enough that I'm willing to give 'em that one. Maybe they named him after Frank Sinatra.

• Let's take an obsessive look at that poster, shall we? First of all, it's a cool image, but nothing even remotely like that happens in the film. Boo!

Second: why is the Golden Gate Bridge on fire? Is that even possible? Isn't it made out of cement and steel? Even if they poured oil or gas on it, I doubt the temperature would get high enough to melt a suspension bridge.

Third: those are some awfully big apes we see swinging around on the bridge (and amidst the flames). They'd have to twenty feet tall for us to see them from that distance.

Fourth: This new poster is very similar to the first one, and for a minute I thought they might line up and form one image, but nope. Darn.

• One area in which the film drops the ball: ape strength. Several times in the movie a group of apes pounce on a fleeing human and rain blows on them with their fists. Nope!

Apes are strong. Very strong. Superhumanly strong. In reality you'd see limbs, spleens and faces flying through the air as the apes tore at their victims. Ape attacks are horrifying, and not at all pretty.

I'm guessing the filmmakers most likely know this, but toned down the ape-on-human action so as not to gross out the audience and get an R or NC-17 rating.

• The apes have but one rule: Ape Does Not Kill Ape. No exceptions!

So how then to deal with a psychopath like Koba, who most definitely did kill other apes? Why, by declaring that he's not an ape of course, and then killing him, that's how. I knew they were gonna come up with some kind of loophole for that law, and totally called the "You're not an ape" line.

• At the end of the film, Caesar battles Koba atop a large tower for the fate of the ape tribe. Caesar lets Koba fall, ending his threat for good.

Or did he? Even though Koba seemingly falls to his death, note that we never actually see his lifeless body. That pretty much guarantees he'll be back in the inevitable sequel. It's one of the Unwritten Laws Of Film.

• In the previous film, a news report in the background mentioned the spaceship Icarus, commanded by one George Taylor (!), had disappeared on its way to Mars.

I'm assuming the Icarus was caught in some kind of time warp and will reappear in some future remake of Planet Of The Apes.

•  The end of the film sets up the inevitable sequel, which will no doubt feature Caesar against what's left of the US Army.

This would round out the trilogy nicely. If they're planning on continuing the series though, I'm betting that further adventures will have to star Andy Serkis as a descendent of Caesar. Chimps generally live 40 to 50 years, so unless the Simian Flu dramatically extends his life expectancy, he's not going to live the thousands of years it would take for man and ape to switch places, ala the original Planet Of The Apes (and that's no doubt where the Icarus will come in).

• My, how far CGI has come! In the final shot, the camera slowly zooms right into Caesar's face and it looks absolutely real. No "dead eyed" Polar Express stares here! 

I was leery when they first announced they were using CGI apes in Rise instead of human actors in prosthetic makeup, but it worked out pretty well for them. Well done, Weta Digital!

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a surprisingly smart sci-fi sequel that outdoes the original. I give it an A.


  1. When Jane Goodall started studying chimps at Gombe in 1960, she soon made two major discoveries that made her world famous: 1) chimps make and use tools, and b) they hunt and eat meat. While meat is a fairly small part of their diet (about 3% of calories), it's a major source of protein and fat. Their favoured prey at Gombe is red colobus monkey. The chimps kill about 15% of the local red colobus per year. That's a huge impact on colobus populations! If colobus stopped breeding, they'd all be gone in a few years. Chimps also hunt cooperatively, banding together to trap a monkey in a tree with no escape route, or to act as beaters to drive the prey towards other chimps, who are waiting in hiding for the kill.

    The point of this rather pedantic diatribe of mine is that, no, chimps aren't vegetarians. They're fairly sophisticated and efficient hunters, although meat makes up only a small proportion of their diet. If they got super smart, though, I could easily see them hunting bigger game.

  2. Well, there you go. As I said, my research into the subject was admittedly spotty and hurried.

    What about gorillas and orangutans? Did she say anything about them?

    Now that I think about it, it looked like it was just chimps hunting the deer. I don't remember seeing any gorillas with them, but I'd probably have to see the movie again to be sure.


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