2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” ended with a virus enveloping the world and dooming humanity, leaving apes to inherit the earth. It also ended with audiences thrilled about the reboot of the sci-fi franchise from the 60s. Here was a project that was likely to fail; a resurrection of a silly-sounding premise with a lot of money and special effects thrown at it that we were supposed to take seriously. Tim Burton had tried to do the same thing back in 2001 and it was one of the biggest bombs of his career. And yet this time it worked, owing largely (but not entirely) to a touching motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis as main ape Caesar. Serkis was so acclaimed for the role that he landed a few unprecedented nominations for major acting awards (not the big one, but how cool would that have been?) Now comes “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” a sequel to the prequel that is arguably more beloved than the original.
The plot follows a human colony and an ape colony as they struggle to coexist in a barren, post-virus world. The apes, not surprisingly, are thriving. They’ve formed a successful little society where they raise families, educate themselves and live off the land. At its head is Caesar, majestic as ever. His chief aide is former enemy turned follower Koba (Toby Kebbell). Koba hates humans and would be happier living in a world completely dominated by apes. And he’d be even happier living in a world dominated by him.
The humans, on the other hand, aren’t doing so well. They’ve spent the years dying from the virus, warring with each other and depleting their resources as always. If an important dam isn’t repaired in the next week, civilization will collapse all over again. The dam happens to be in ape territory. A good-natured human leader (Jason Clarke) decides to reach out to the apes to see if they’ll allow them to rebuild the dam, and Caesar wearily agrees. A bad-guy human leader (Gary Oldman) believes that apes aren’t to be trusted, and with apes like Koba in the mix, he’s not entirely wrong. Can humans and apes learn to live together? Or is one side destined to destroy the other? Can the sides even keep from destroying themselves?
What the film does right, in short, is the apes. Everything the first film did right about them as characters is here again in greater quantity. The apes get the better personalities, better storylines, better action scenes. Andy Serkis is great again, but all actors behind the motion capture technology deserve praise, especially Toby Kebbell as the tyrannical Koba. One complaint I have is that the apes have a tendency to look alike. Koba has a distinctive scarring to him, but even with Caesar there were times where I couldn’t tell him from other apes. Maybe that’s just the fault of my ignorant human brain.
What the film does wrong, in short, is the humans. There’s not an interesting character among them. Either they’re dull sweethearts like Clarke or trigger-happy meanies like Oldman. Every time the characters approach a complex subject like loyalty to a flawed species or making peace with the apes vs. destroying the apes, there’s always some sort of shooting or explosion to render the argument moot. To be fair, there’s some of this with the apes as well.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” breaks the streak of terrible movies I’ve seen lately. The filmmakers know exactly what they want to do with the apes and the results make the audience go bananas (sorry, couldn’t resist). I’m optimistic about the future of the franchise. I just hope that the next installment can come up with something better for my own species.
Two and a Half Stars out of Five.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language. Its running time is 130 minutes.
Contact Bob Garver at firstname.lastname@example.org.