Dawn of Planet of Apes ✮✮
Apes with Guns
by Glenn Lovell
Man and simian try to make nice in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the 10-years-later sequel to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” That this experiment in peaceful post-apocalyptic coexistence doesn’t take won’t come as a surprise. As with the other “Planet of the Apes” movies, dating to the more allegorical 1968 original with Charlton Heston, this one reminds us why there are bars separating man from gorilla at the local zoo: with apologies to Jane Goodall, man and ape don’t much care for one another, probably because the latter reminds the former of what he once was and the former reminds the latter of how far homo erectus has stumbled down the evolutionary ladder.
Like “Rise,” released three years ago, this new installment, directed by Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”), boasts wall-to-wall digital effects and performance-capture inserts that are light-years removed from anything found in the Dawn of Man gorilla-suit tableaux of “2001.” Both movies are really prequels that attempt to explain how it was that Earth fell victim to reverse evolution, with simians now calling the shots and herding humans like cattle. Is it a case of natural selection, the planet righting itself, or, following those horrific lab experiments, is it poetic justice?
When last we spied the chimp-ape-orangutan army, it had decamped to the redwoods north of San Francisco. And this is where we find the upstart simians a decade later. Only now they’re living in a makeshift fortress and communicating through sign language and broken English. Their credo: “Ape not kill ape.”
Meanwhile, thanks to a simian flu pandemic, humans are back in the Dark Ages — or at least the 1950s — living in shopping malls without electricity, staring longingly at their useless laptops. Members of a San Francisco colony, looking to reboot a hydroelectric dam, wander into ape territory and cause no end of teeth-gnashing and frenzied dancing.
In the best line in what is overall a fairly monotonous sci-fi adventure, the loose-cannon member of the team reports back, “They’re talking apes! With big-ass spears!”
Caesar (Andy Serkis), the smartest ‒ and chattiest ‒ of the tribe, is still in charge. But his leadership is being contested by Koba (Toby Kebell), who bears the scars of human experiments. An astute politician, Koba accuses Caesar of being soft on humans. Caesar, a peacenik-pragmatist, counters: “Apes do not want war, but will fight if we must.”
After much back-and-forth over whether humans carrying guns are to be trusted, the simians rise up and lay siege to the San Francisco colony, run by Gary Oldman, who has little to do but probably signed on for the opportunity to shout, “Sound the alarm! Sound the alarm!”
Because “Rise” wasn’t nearly as good or provocative as the original “Planet of the Apes,” our expectations for “Dawn” weren’t very high. The effects ‒ a mix of CG, 3D animation, and state-of-the-art performance capture ‒ are said to have set 20th Century-Fox back upwards of $170 million. They run from stunning to strategically obscured. Serkis and Kebell peering out from beneath digitized fur and prosthetics impart far more emotion than their human counterparts. Unfortunately, there’s not much of a story to justify the two-hour-plus running length, and the battle royal between Caesar and Koba atop an abandoned skyscraper proves more cartoonish than cathartic. The best sequence has Koba conning a couple of dimwit guards by playing the stereotypical Hollywood chimp (compliant, clownish, anxious to please) ‒ right up until the moment he seizes their weapons and (anti-gun lobby take note) experience a new kind of bloodlust.
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES ✮✮ With Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Toby Kebell, Gary Oldman. Directed by Matt Reeves; scripted by Mark Bombeck, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver. 130 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence, profanity)