Oh my god, it’s back. All this time… They finally really did it. Those maniacs! They used ‘of the’ twice in another movie title! Ah, damn you! Damn you all to hell!
In fact, there are fewer people giving this movie its full title than there are calling for Tim Burton’s return to the franchise. Thankfully, the wordiness of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a superbly made if occasionally predicable tale of goodies against baddies which will make you truly proud to be a primate.
Set ten winters (Orang-utan for ‘ten years’) after the Planet of the Apes rose, we find ourselves in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco. It’s not a good year to be a Bay City Roller; after Godzilla ravaged San Fran last month, it now finds itself with its population ravaged due to Simian Flu, contracted from the genetically modified apes in the first film. Those who are immune to the virus hole up under the megaphoned guidance of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), but they are quickly running out of fuel. Across the bridge lives a colony of apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), who have built a wooden fortress reminiscent of the native island in Peter Jackson’s King Kong: the torches, stone pits and angular branches make this a threatening place, even though the apes are at peace.
There is mistrust between the humans and apes, but no hostility until Everyman Malcolm (a serviceable Jason Clarke) ventures into the forest in order to fix a dam that will bring power back to the city. He and his rag-tag team of two dimensional grunts don’t wish to be a pain; just get in, do a job and leave without aggravating chimps to throw their shit at them, and diplomatic Caesar, remembering his past with James Franco, is happy to ignore his sceptic followers and oblige the outsiders. Bizarre really, that a Hollywood blockbuster could centre on a faulty dam, but the simplicity of this plot point allows director Matt Reeves to explore poignant moments of trust, family and revenge without getting bogged down in narrative.
It might surprise audiences that there is not much here to surprise. Naturally, tensions between the apes and the humans are never wholly alleviated, as Oldman’s crew back in Frisco are preparing for war while Malcolm attempts at peace, and this is where the film has the feel of a history play. In effect, Serkis as Caesar is very significantly playing the role of the Roman Emperor; he must think of the greater good, the safety and future of his clan, and also consider relations with other groups, all while surrounded by flatterers and dissenters. Thanks to the motion-capture performances, you can really see Serkis making metaphorical chess moves in Caesar’s head, weighing up the delicate politics of his situation and acting accordingly. Caesar is not merely a clever chimp: he expresses all the qualities of a top general who will soon be in control of the human race.
As mentioned, not all apes are hailing Caesar, and this film has its own Brutus in the form of bananas bonobo Koba (Toby Kebbell), who had a bad experience with humans in a lab and certainly doesn’t want to be anything like you-ooh-ooh. The apes have developed sign language and a crude (although grammatically perfect) form of English, but they are strongest in their understanding of tragic themes: forgiveness; loyalty; revenge. It is around these poignant ideas that Caesar and Koba face off. First, the bonobo is the reluctant disciple, then the rogue revolutionary, and eventually a murderous tyrant. He even gets his own version of a back-stabbing scene. If that’s not a Shakespearean character arc then I don’t know what is. In his utter disregard of peace and mistrust in anything human, Koba is a truly terrifying movie villain, often acting with chillingly spontaneous aggression. Fans of the World Cup have probably already seen Koba in action during half time of Argentina-Holland (no, not Adrian Chiles): he was the ape larking around with a machine gun before coldly killing two human henchman. Parents, quite rightly, complained that this was too violent for the half time show, and it doesn’t even come close to the limit of Koba’s inhumanity.
As with the previous film, this is not about apes vs humans, but rather apes vs apes and humans vs humans. Part of the reason why the film is so engaging for its two hour plus running time is because you never quite know with whom to side, particularly with the original 1968 version in mind. Neither Caesar nor Malcolm are interested in bloodshed, but they realise that peace between species is unlikely; Dreyfus and Koba both have the fire-power for war, but ultimately have the same concern as everyone else – the survival of their own. At times this is an unnervingly problematic political thriller which questions hierarchy and family, and all characters must learn that sticking by your kind can have devastating results.
Although I am talking up the film like Elizabethan theatre, it should be noted that Shakespeare never gave an insane bonobo double machine-guns and put him on a tank. Reeves has orchestrated the action perfectly here, building up to a riotous assault on the San Francisco base (Helm’s Deep, but with orcs replaced by apes) and simian slam atop a tower. In the former fight Reeves keeps his camera firmly fixed on the top of the tank, as tramcars and gorillas go up in flames around it. This is the kind of stylistic mark of a director who is comfortable with massive set-pieces. Yes, there is crashing and banging and falling cranes and crumbling buildings, but you always know what is going on with the the duelling duo, Caesar and Koba, whose final meeting has all the lost, brotherly trust of Mufasa and Scar.
If there is one (very small) let-down, it is that the writing of the human characters is not strong enough to compete with the apes. The technology used means that Caesar and his clan can express so much without words (the final shot is testament to this) and fortunately the primates are not undersold in the way that the humans are. It is made clear that both Malcolm and his second wife Ellie (Keri Russell, better off mute as in 1968) have suffered loss at the hands of Simian Flu, but they are fleeting remarks that never quite have any coherence with the rest of the film. Elsewhere, Malcolm’s son Alexander draws his feelings, and Dreyfus has an incongruous moment where he cries at the sight of an iPad.
Aside from this emotional mismatch between species, this is a superb addition to the Apes canon. You must get your stinking paws on a ticket, you damn dirty reader!