The best “Apes” since the 1968 original. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes puts concentration on story, and the spectacle is confidently orchestrated with classical camerawork – no wobbly cameras. Building off the 2011 “Rise” entry, the apes have organized and settled into the Redwood forest just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Hundreds of millions of humans have perished from a Simian virus, and the remaining are desperate in broken cities with no power. Gary Oldman, no patience for apes but not a typical “villain” either, presides over a community that desires to enter the apes’ habitat so they can hook-up electric power. Cooperation commences between man and ape, but xenophobia from both sides kick-starts war. Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kirk Acevedo are among the humans, Andy Serkis inhabits the proud Ape Caesar.
In 2001, the 20th Century Fox studio attempted a reboot directed by Tim Burton that went nowhere. Pointless, un-stylish, perfunctory. It’s one of the worst movies ever made, and here’s my thing: There’s never been an apology by the studio for it! It’s a rare case I think a studio, and a director, should publicly apologize to the moviegoing public for putting that thing out there. But “Rise” and “Dawn” are perhaps the amends – It’s uncommon for a studio to put a thoughtful story and artistic choices behind a reboot. They could have sold out and turned the franchise into “Apes: Age of Extinction,” directed by Michael Bay.
Instead, “Dawn” is directed by the estimable Matt Reeves who put brains and classical style into “Let Me In,” an American remake of the Swedish vampire film “Let the Right One In.” The three writers credited are Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback, and I’ve heard of none of them. Although I read now that the first two are on-board to write the “Avatar” sequels, and Bomback has written two superior thrillers, “Unstoppable” and “Live Free or Die Hard.” This team has taken the “Apes” scenario and spun variations on the Julius Caesar story (hence Caesar is the main ape), have devised metaphors for American Slavery, the pre-Civil Rights accepted minority behavior, Apartheid and the fuel crisis of the Middle East. And war is eventually waged on San Francisco’s Market Street that has degenerated since the societal meltdown into an Afghanistan-like slum.
It’s hard to make direct metaphor correlations, but the fact that those ideas linger in the mind while watching “Dawn” means something. The movie does gloss over some illogical moments or bring up ideas only to abandon them. Two humans lift an Ape from the forest to their car, although the weight would factually be too much for them. And generally, I’m not so certain of the outcomes for some of the human characters at the end (one death in particular of a star actor is given barely a second of screen time for it to register with us). This is an Apes story foremost, and we realize that because we know more about the Apes at the end than the humans. Though, I do credit Clarke (“Zero Dark Thirty”) for creating a compelling, brave human who respectfully communicates with the Apes without ever falling back onto the need of using an obligatory weapon.
The series would have never lasted this long, at least not reputably, if the 1968 original wasn’t so good. “Planet” with Charlton Heston had a lean but intelligent story, and years after you’ve seen it, the last twenty minutes still unlocks its mysteries in your imagination. Of course the final shot itself of that classic is a humdinger, but all that leads up to it bring on new dimensions the more you rewatch it. “Dawn” is the best since the original, not because the Apes are so uncanny lifelike at this point, but because the screenplay has those brains to match the original.
130 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
SCI-FI & FANTASY / THINKING MAN’S ACTION / FRIDAY NIGHT THRILLS