As a filmmaking achievement, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is little short of miraculous. Building on the eye-popping work in the 2011 series reboot, the geniuses at WETA (led by Oscar-winner Joe Letteri) have done the impossible, giving new, ironic meaning to the phrase “seeing is believing.” Their work somehow eclipses the category of visual effects; perhaps “virtual effects” is more like it. When you see computer-generated apes interacting with humans, in the real-life setting of Muir Woods, outside of San Francisco—in 3-D, no less—you accept it all as genuine, without question.
Adding to this perception is the exceptional motion-capture performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar, the dominant, human-raised ape we met in the previous film. His tribe lives in the woods, almost certain that after ten years’ time, their human enemies have been wiped out. Except they haven’t. When a scouting party arrives on their turf, hoping to restart a power plant for a community of survivors in the city, their capable but compassionate leader (Jason Clarke) manages to persuade Caesar that they mean the animals no harm.
This is where the screenplay (by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback) reveals some of its inherent weaknesses. Jaffa and Silver, who wrote the 2011 film, can’t resist certain B-movie tropes. (I can’t completely blame them: those ingredients tend to be crowd-pleasers.) Naturally, there’s a loutish, trigger-happy jerk in the human contingent. And just as inevitably, there is a Brutus to our simian Caesar. Koba (Toby Kebbell) has been grateful to his mentor all these years, but he interprets Caesar’s willingness to negotiate with humans as a fatal flaw, and grabs his opportunity to seize power. (It’s hard to swallow that this character, who becomes incredibly vicious and violent, has been docile for an entire decade.)
The gist of all this is that war is not precipitated by grand design but by impetuous acts of violence, which may well be true. And while apes live by a credo not to kill their own kind, it turns out that these creatures have all-too-human failings. There are good apes and bad apes, just as there are good people and bad people—not to mention well-meaning people who are easily swayed, or just don’t see the Big Picture.
Director Matt Reeves orchestrates all of this in robust fashion, but once I saw where the story was headed I felt myself detaching from the picture emotionally. Like so many tentpole movies, this one goes on a bit too long and leads to a spectacular (if unnecessary) action climax, as if it were drawn from a manual on how to make summer action films.
It doesn’t help that the human characters are superficial at best. Clarke has a strong, virile screen presence, and Keri Russell is good as his companion, whose medical training comes in handy, but the impact of their characters pales in comparison to the apes. Gary Oldman is stuck in a shopworn role as leader of the San Francisco survivors who tries to unify his people, even as the apes stage a full-on attack.
Because the movie is so grand in scale, and so skillfully executed, it’s bound to please a wide audience, whether they’re looking for bloodthirsty action, massive doses of special effects, or a parable about war and peace. I can only applaud its visual achievements, but I maintain my reservations about its storytelling smarts.
Even after 46 years, the premise—and resolution—of the 1968 Planet of the Apes remain impressive and unforgettable. What’s more, the film offered moviegoers the dazzling element of surprise. This latest incarnation of the saga does just the opposite: it gives the audience exactly what it expects, in a shiny, showy package.