Starring: Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Andy Serkis
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Action/Drama/Science-Fiction, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Date: July 11, 2014
Sirkis is chimply marvelous in this role. Let’s recap.
It’s been ten years since Caesar (Andy Serkis), the genetically modified chimp from Rise of the Planet of the Apes escaped into the forests of San Francisco. A lot has happened. There was an outbreak of simian flu that decimated humanity leaving only a handful of humans who were genetically immune to the disease. Meanwhile, Caesar has freed hundreds of apes from human captivity and taught them to communicate by sign language. They’ve created an entire culture separate from the humans. Then, one day, a human named Carver (Kirk Acevedo) in search of a hydroelectric dam happens upon a couple of apes and he shoots one of them.
Caesar warns the humans never to venture into ape territory again. But the humans need to get the dam operational to regain electrical power. They send Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his wife Ellie (Keri Russell), and a few others, including Carver, to negotiate access to the dam. Caesar agrees, but only if the group gives up their guns. Carver hides a gun and threatens Caesar’s infant son with it, causing an uproar that is only quelled by Ellie’s willingness to provide medical treatment to Caesar’s wife. Meanwhile, an ape named Koba (Toby Kebbell), who will not accept any peace with the humans, sabotages relations between the two groups by secretly setting fire to the ape settlement and attempting to assassinate Caesar.
Scott, this was a much better film than 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. There were some real personalities here and some real conflict. We see two sets of characters at play – the humans and the apes. On the side of the humans we have Malcolm who wants peace with the apes. On the other side is Caesar who looks at the dam agreement as their one chance for peace with the humans.
But both sides have their hawks as well. The humans have Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) who is so mistrustful of the apes that he starts hoarding weapons. This, of course, inflames the ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) who has reason to distrust humans as he was the victim of experiments at the hands of human scientists. This creates a great conflict both between human and ape as well as between hawks and doves.
Sadly, Keri Russell isn’t given much to do here except “stand by her man.” And the female chimp (Caesar’s wife) does little more than give birth and get sick. Apparently the future is still male-dominated.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a complex film. Admittedly, it does have some of the telltale signs of a summer blockbuster – flying bullets, daredevil stunts, and plenty of explosions. But these superficial trappings of summer popcorn bely the true meaty core of this very measured and thoughtful movie. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes made me think, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had to really turn my brain on at the movies.
First and foremost, this is a movie about the very real and very demanding challenges of resolving intergroup conflict. We learn that sometimes good leadership isn’t enough. There must also be good “followership” in that a critical mass of people being led need to be on board with the vision of an effective leader. As you point out, Greg, we have peace-loving leadership on both sides but only a few bad apples can undermine all the good intentions.
The hero structure looks like (what we describe in our book Reel Heroes: Volume 1) a divergent duo. They start out as separate characters, opposed to working together. But with time, they form a bond. They work together toward a common goal. During this period they are buddy heroes. But in the end, they go their separate ways. Destiny has played its hand and humans and apes cannot be friends – war is their ultimate demise.
Good call on the heroes in this movie being divergent heroes, Greg. I’m beginning to believe that divergent hero stories are my favorite kind of stories because they provide two separate hero tales for the price of one. Often, the two separate hero journeys become intertwined in surprising ways. Last year’s Philomena comes to mind, for example. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar and Malcolm are wise and well-intentioned, yet they are brought down by forces beyond their control that rage all around them. The joy of the movie is watching how our two heroes act on their virtuous characteristics, and how they respond to the treachery of their sidekicks.
One of my beefs with this movie centers on the character of Carver. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins with Carver needlessly shooting one of the apes. He’s a racist hothead who should never have been chosen to go on the expedition in the first place, and yet, inexplicably, he’s chosen again to accompany Malcolm on the trip to repair the dam. Surely there are more even-keeled and reasonable alternatives to Carver. Yes, we need Carver’s misbehavior to help add dramatic tension, but it stretched the bounds of believability for me.
I have to agree with you on that. I was really impressed with the quality of the CGI in this film. There’s a point where Caesar and Malcolm touch foreheads and you cannot see any dividing line between them. Caesar’s hair becomes matted down by Malcolm’s head. It’s simple amazing. And the full articulation of the facial features is wonderful. This is an order of magnitude better than the original Gollum character that Sirkis created for Lord of the Rings.
The villains in this story are driven by their fear – the heroes are driven by their vision. It’s a compelling difference to watch. As you point out, Carver is the bigot who cannot see past the limitations of stereotypes he’s been taught. Koba, the hawkish ape, has been harmed so badly by humans that he cannot see past his pain. And Dreyfus is intent on saving what’s left of humanity. He doesn’t have the space to work toward a peaceable trust. This was an interesting collection of villains, with just enough depth to make them interesting.
What I appreciate most about the heroes and villains in this movie is the fact that they exist on both sides of the dispute. There are ape heroes and ape villains. And there are human heroes and human villains. This film could have taken the easy route and made one side all good and the other side all bad, but it decided that nuance and realism were more important than the usual oversimplification we see at the movies.
I also appreciate the complex motives that drive the villainous behavior. Besides the usual racist ethnocentrism, there is fear that drives both sides to aggress against the other. There is also the bitter memory of past oppression, which fuels Koba’s hatred of humanity. And finally there is pure ignorance. The humans underestimate ape intelligence, and the apes underestimate human goodness. Again, this film really nails the genesis of intergroup conflict.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an intelligent and intelligently crafted science fiction thriller that examines the heart of war. At 130 minutes long, it tested my attention in places. However, it is the best of the Apes franchise and I give it a hearty 4 out of 5 Reels.
The heroes in this story are interesting and deeply drawn. The emotive power of Sirkis’ Caesar was simply amazing and helped to tell the full story. The duo/divergent heroes is a pattern we’ve seen before, but played especially well here. I give Malcolm and Caesar 4 out of 5 Heroes.
Finally, the villains were not as strong as the heroes. Carver plays the typical purely bad guy. Koba is at least given a decent backstory to motivate his hatred. Dreyfus as the leader of the humans will do whatever he can to ensure the survival of his people, but is too blind to see the larger picture. I wish the villains were as detailed as the heroes, so I give them only 3 out of 5 Villains.
Greg, we’re on the same page on two of the three ratings. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a refreshing reprieve from the usual summer mindless popcorn fare that infects movie theaters. This film is a thought-provoking look at human conflict, how it begins, how hard it is to avoid, and how difficult it is to stop once it has started. Yes, this movie reeks of patriarchy, and once again the limited role of women in a Hollywood film is disappointing. Still, I enjoyed this movie very much and give it 4 out of 5 Reels.
Our two divergent heroes are a joy to watch, not just because they time and again show wisdom and compassion, but because their journeys are arduous and realistic. Are they transformed by their journeys? Yes, and in profound ways. Caesar has certainly learned the true value of family and friends, and he pays a dear price for holding naive views of ape goodness and human trustworthiness. Like you, I’ll give our pair of heroes 4 out of 5 Heroes.
We disagree about the villains, Greg. Most movies devote little time to fleshing out the details of villains’ motives and backstory. With Koba, we see the origins of evil; the past torturing of Koba may not justify his actions but it makes them understandable. The human leader, Dreyfus, also has a history and set of motivations that leave us understanding his aggressive behavior but not condoning it. The villains here are complex and fascinating. I’m happy to give them a full 5 out of 5 Villains.