The biggest problem the various ‘Planet of the Apes’ films always had was right there in the title – they were about a planet full of apes and not much else. More to the point they were about said apes living like humans instead of the humans they replaced. They never surpassed the mediocre Star Trek episode like quality of the concept, and Tim Burton’s attempt to restart the franchise back in 2001 merely reveled in that aesthetic rather than rethink it.
That then is a testament to the work Rupert Wyatt and writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver did in 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” imagining not just the original Ape take over occurred but what the ape leader who started it all would be like, creating the series greatest character in Andy Serkis’ (“The Lord of the Rings”) Caesar.
It is that formidable gauntlet incoming director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) has picked up and proceeded to smack around every previous Apes film.
After the success of “Rise” the filmmakers have freed themselves from the need to tie the film to a human storyline, focusing primarily on the apes themselves. It’s a decision which pays off spectacularly thanks in large part to the continued stellar work of both the actors who become the apes in feel and the craftsmen at Weta and the Imaginarium Studio who transform them in look.
It’s still mostly all about Andy Serkis, now the unquestioned hero of the film (with James Franco resigned to just appearing on an old video), but with mutant ape society growing he now has many fellows to play against, creating an utterly real mutant ape society. None more so than Toby Kebbler’s Koba, Caesar’s (Serkis) best friend and confidant who still holds a grudge against humanity for the years he spent as a test animal in a lab. A grudge which comes screaming back to life once ape and human run into one another once again.
As much effort as the actors put into their performances, Reeves and screenwriter Matt Bomback have put into imagining what the world they live in would be like and how it shapes the people living in it. And make no mistake, these apes are people, with a developing (if still primitive) society.
It’s 10 years on since the end of “Rise” and much of the human race has vanished, leaving the apes to begin claiming the land for themselves under the leadership of Caesar (“Serkis”), now a father and experienced leader. The initial sequences introducing the new ape society (and the ashes of the old it lives atop) perfectly introduce us to this new status quo and the individuals who make it up with a deft hand and that tells us all we need to know in a few short minutes.
And they discover some humans, long thought dead, are still alive when a group of technicians looking for an old hydroelectric damn stumbles upon them, stirring up questions of whether the two groups can work together or not.
Rather than using that as just an excuse to jump right into ape-human war, the filmmakers keep their eye firmly on characterization from beginning to end. Not only do you understand why everyone is doing what they’re doing, you can sympathize with each of their points of view. If you’d lived their lives you might have made the same choices they did. That said the humans, though more than window dressing, are only a little more than window dressing, with far more attention paid to the apes. Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman do their best, but the movie’s not called Dawn of the Planet of the Humans.
That eye on character allows the plot build slowly but surely, laying a brick and testing its surety before putting the next layer down, creating a suspension of disbelief strong enough to hold an overgrown Golden Gate bridge. By the time apes are charging forward on horses firing machine guns, you completely buy into it, and the fantastic imagery has all that much more power.
Most of the time, anyway. Occasionally the desire to make a beautiful fantasy film gets away from production designer James Chinlund. For a film that is only 10 years on from the last the world looks more like a century has gone by. Trees have grown up through old freeways into mighty oaks, hiding old gas stations like the tin woodsman’s cabin, deep in the woods. And yet, as soon as the power comes back on the station lights back up and 10 year old cd players and video cameras start right back up. It’s a small thing as far as it goes, but that’s generally the only area ‘Apes’ trips up – like having Koba and his soldiers become master marksapes the first time they pick a gun up.
It also has a tendency to rely on using an idiot ball to keep the plot moving forward, mainly in the form of Kirk Acevedo, who freaks out and does something stupid every time he sees a mutant ape. So naturally the heroes take him along with him whenever they go to ape land, even after mentioning that he can’t be trusted around the apes.
Still they’re small problems which can easily be ignored for the great accomplishment Reeves and his team have managed. It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard to make a piece of big budget entertainment which doesn’t skimp on brains or heart while ignoring the siren call of camp or bad humor. It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard, but apparently it is, so let’s cherish it where we find it.
Starring Andy Serkis as Caesar, Toby Kebbell as Koba, Jason Clarke as Malcolm, Gary Oldman as Dreyfus, Nick Thurston as River, Keri Russell as Ellie, Kodi Smit-McPhee as Alexander, Karin Konoval as Maurice, Kirk Acevedo as Carver, Terry Notary as Rocket, Doc Shaw as Ash, Judy Greer as Cornelia