* This review contains spoilers for Rise of the Planet of the Apes and mild spoilers for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And huge spoilers for the originals *
Like most people who enjoy movies and the cinema, I’m not a big fan of the remake. Generally speaking Hollywood thinks that all cinema-goers are total idiots and therefore they can just grab a new cast, slap some better FX on something hey presto: instant box office.
Quite often they are sadly right but it doesn’t mean we have to like it. Remakes have been coming out since forever but Hollywood was especially keen on them in the last few years. Evil Dead and Total Recall stick in the mind as being both quite unnecessary remakes that totally forgot the premise of the original movie. Total Recall managed to be one of the dullest action movies you’ll, with luck, never see.
A few years ago I reacted with some trepidation to a second Planet of the Apes remake. Of course the first remake by Tim Burton was a débâcle; a confusing, meaningless movie that had plenty of calls back to the original which largely made no sense. It was the start of Tim Burton’s slide into making nothing but mediocre movies and was one of the first times when Mark Wahlberg showed that he’s not interesting enough to be a leading man, a fact he’s only just begun to disprove now.
However Rise of the Planet of the Apes was far removed from both the Burton remake and the original movies. Lest we forget the originals are considered cult classics rather than actual classics, filled with clunky dialogue, silly plots and far too much Charlton Heston running around. They are also at times quite gloomy, maudlin movies where the entire world is destroyed several times over. Then some nonsense to do with a time travelling space-ship allows them to reset everything.
Rise set the clock back to the modern day and its biggest leap of reason was that we had to believe that James Franco was a genius biologist. His work on alzhiemers allows the lead character, Caesar, to become super intelligent and to eventually lead a group of apes in revolt who escape to a wooded paradise near San Francisco.
In the sequel it’s been ten years since the original. The “Simian Flu” from Rise, which was largely confined to a sub-plot, has now wiped out massive swathes of mankind and the subsequent battles over resources have furthered whittled mankind down to a few isolated groups of survivors. The lead group in Dawn are led by Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman in an underwritten role) and Malcom (Jason Clarke in a sympathetic role for a change). The humans need to switch on a damn so they can use the phone. It’s really a bit of a plot device.
The main characters are of course the apes who now live in an ordered society based around Caesar’s leadership. Andy Serkis provides the voice and motion capture and his work is superb again, even with the higher bar of the first movie. He’s joined by Toby Kebbel’s Koba, the Bonobo who was tortured by scientists in the first movie and is his lieutenant, harbouring some fairly justified revenge issues.
As man and ape encounter each other again, conflict rears its head as the distrustful and the vengeful on each side plot war with the other side. The “good guys” try to work together but it’s all destined to end up in a lot of shooting, jumping and shrieking.
The movie starts with a really pacey and exciting first act, largely centred on the dynamics and politics of the ape colony, which isn’t nearly as daft as it sounds. The relationship between Koba, Caesar and Caesar’s son Blue Eyes is really interesting and well acted. The apes largely communicate with sign and body language which is a nice touch. The first few spoken lines by apes are well chosen and have the same sort of shock value that they did in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
The human side of the story is less interesting. Most of the human characters are quite dull, with the exception of Malcolm’s son played by Kodi Smit-McPhee from “Let Me In”. The rest largely run, shout or shoot and aren’t easy to pick out in a crowd. Gary Oldman has his moments even when he’s just jobbing like in this movie but this is a movie for the apes.
The middle act is less interesting as it’s largely to do with the repair of a damn and the growing tensions on each side. The pace notably slows here and while it’s clear that this is where we’re building the characters up, it’s less interesting than the first and third acts.
The conflict, when it finally happens, is savage, scary and pretty violent for a 12A / PG13 movie and the imagery is pretty powerful. Cloverfield director Matt Reeves is good at creating images that hark back to real life and his analogy to the Nazi’s and to vivisection are well done. He’s a fine visual director but also makes sure that the story has plenty of emotional beats.
Serious respect has to be paid here too for the creative work on this movie to call back to the Rise of the Planet of the Apes with little touches that recall events and images of the first movie. Setting the movie in and around San Francisco helps with that. Of course there are occasional moments where characters do things that clearly just serve the plot and the underwritten nature of some of the human characters does undermine them a bit, but all in all the story is sound and surprisingly emotional.
This movie is as least as good as the first one and doesn’t have the benefit of the low expectations of the original. Dawn is a very solid sci-fi thriller, emotional, quite intelligent, violent, scary and in places very exciting. The CGI is barely worth talking about because it is so good, you’ll barely even notice and I had forgotten that the apes are in CGI. Of course there are a few moments when you are shaken out of your daze, the occasional moment of muddy CG work or some clunky character movement but all in all it’s a really well worked movie.
The groundwork is laid for sequels and you’re left with a slightly better feel of how the future envisioned in the Charlton Heston version may have come about. Of course it’s clear that this movie doesn’t feel beholden to that vision so may well tread its own path.
This is Caesar’s movie, he holds the screen and is a well written character and has moments of scary power and loving tenderness that give him quite a range. Serkis was snubbed by the academy for the first movie and one gets the impression he will be again due to the age of the academy judges and their dislike for technology. Serkis will have to make do with being Hollywood’s go-to motion capture guy.
And content himself with being in Star Wars 7 next year……