The rebirth of the Planet Of The Apes franchise seemingly came from nowhere, exploding from out of the foliage, teeth bared in a defiant screech as it hurled manhole covers and parking meters at stunned passers by – no one could have predicted it and no one was prepared for this suprisingly well balanced return to form for a film series that had arguably been sitting around picking fleas out of it’s fur and scratching it’s monkey bum since 1970.
However, for this much awaited sequel, previous director Rupert Wyatt was not destined to return, so the question rung out: who could step in and do justice to all the good work done by Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes?
Enter Matt Reeves – he of the first person monster stomper, Cloverfield and frigid, vampire remake Let Me In – to give a brooding, naturalistic makeover to this leafy dystopia which stands proudly on it’s prehensile feet to take it’s place as The Dark Knight of epic monkey movies.
It’s been years after the events of Rise and the disease known as simian flu has decimated the human population and essentially knocked all civilisation onto it’s stunned ass. Meanwhile, in the forests of San Francisco, super smart simian Caesar has managed to build an entire advanced community that includes the kind of shelter that would go down a bomb on an episode of Grand Designs. Utilising tools and tactics to hunt as a well oiled group, peace has finally seemed to have found our hairy hero and he’s even managed to find time to settle down and start a family with his impressionable son, Blue Eyes, hunting by his side and a newborn on the way.
However, strain is put on this primate utopia with the arrival of a human search party who are hoping to restore electricity to the city by powering up the dam that – wouldn’t you know it – lies smack bang in the middle of ape territory. These humans, led by the benevolent Malcom and the pragmatic Dreyfuss, have survived the ravages of Simian Flu and the subsequent chaos and are desperate to rebuild something even remotely close to a normal way of life and despite some early misunderstandings the two communities manage to forge a tentative alliance thanks to the efforts of the thoughtful leadership of both Caesar and Malcolm. Unfortunately the truce between the Apes and humans proves to be as fragile as a porcelain boxing glove and each side has members who are unwilling or unable to except peace, chief amongst them being Koba, Caesar’s trusted lieutenant, who’s past dealings with humans as a lab experiment has left him scarred, bitter and willing to do what it takes to get revenge. As tempers build and trust frays, a treacherous conspiracy threatens the life of the only being who can quell the animosity from both species, Caesar himself – can he possibly save both species from all this mounting monkey business?
Where Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was a polished and zippy race through the early years of Caesar, the monkey messiah in waiting, Dawn slams on the brakes to slow things way down in order to introduce us to this brand new status quo where the balance of power between simians and humans is roughly 50/50. Due to leaps in digital technology, the mo-cap ape actors could now strut their monkey stuff on location (while on actual horses) while being lashed with shitty weather conditions and thanks to this, the movie has a wet, weather beaten mood that’s virtually seamless and extremely fitting for the mood of the piece. Rain and mist enshroud the miserable looking characters as both species exchange death stares as they pass each other going in different directions on the evolutionary ladder as Reeves gives us something suprisingly more subtle than the usual, splashy boxbuster fare.
For a start, the characters morals are as grey as the climate around them with Andy Serkis’ magnificent Caesar often forced into impossible choices and torn between his duty to his tribe and the good memories he has of his old human family – but it’s the scar-faced Koba, played balls out by Toby Kebbell and sporting a mug that wouldn’t look out of place in a Fright Night movie, who impresses most as a creature who justifiably cannot move on to the atrocities literally carved into him by callous homosapiens. He’s a gloriously complicated villain with a legitimate grudge who is mirrored on the human side by Gary Oldman’s Dreyfuss, who is also willing to commit genocidal acts in order to preserve his species from a foe he has no interest in understanding. In many ways this leaves the ever dependable form of Jason Clarke as the movie’s straight man with neither a combustible grudge or a shit ton of computer effects to play with; but Clarke is an actor who projects decency like few others and so is perfectly cast here.
Of course, for a multi-million dollar movie portraying apes taking over the earth, the navel gazing and internalized plotting has to give way to some bombast sooner or later and the fight, when it comes, is suitably fiery (the sight of a screaming Koba, consumed with bloodlust and riding hard through flames while firing two machine guns from horseback is hard to shake) and although the film ultimately opts to end on a much more conventional mano a mano (ape-o a ape-o?) duel to the death between it’s two CGI leads – which feels a little bit too neat compared to the moral complexity of the rest of the film – it still resolves things in a manner in a far more restrained way than most movies of it’s ilk.
In fact the only real problem that Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes has is that it rounds up everything almost too well and therefore feels as if there’s almost no more story to be told; but on the otherhand it also only proves to highlight the strength of the film in that it’s crafted well enough to stand on it’s own while managing to expertly balance it’s story and characters with the requisite explodey bits needed to attract a larger audience.
Hail Caesar, indeed.