I was never a huge fan of the "Planet Of The Apes" franchise. I think I was just too young to understand the 1968 original. I do recall enjoying a children’s book adaptation that came with an actual vinyl 45″ record that you played and listened to voice actors reading the dialogue from the book, which was at most, ten pages long. I lost interest as the franchise chugged along, what with the "Conquest" and the "Beneath The Planet," nuclear bombs and mutated humans, etc. It got a little weird. Then Burton’s 2001 film came along (has it really been that long ago?!) and I thought it would be a great opportunity to get onboard with this popular property at the ground floor of a new series. I was much older, and the idea of the world being dominated by intelligent apes was intriguing to me. But the movie just didn’t deliver. Then came "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes," which was a nice effort, great battle scene, but it left me a little cold.
So when I saw the trailers and promos for this film, I once again got excited. A post-apocalyptic setting where humanity is on the brink of extinction–it seemed as though the franchise was moving forward to a world similar to that of the 1968 film, a world where we get to see a truly simian society, with humans reduced to slavery and fodder for brutal sport. Again, such was not the case. "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" not only continues as an origin story, but we’re not allowed to see the human devastation of the simian plague. The exposition of the pandemic is all summed up before the opening title and the sum total of mankind’s plight in this film rests on whether or not Malcolm (Jason Clarke of "Zero Dark Thirty"); Ellie (Keri Russell); and Alexander ("The Road‘s" Kodi Smit-McPhee), all of whom are immune to the virus, can get the Bay area dam up and running to provide San Francisco with electrical power. That, and brief flashes of photos and videos of loved ones who didn’t survive the outbreak. Perhaps showing us some of the human tragedy would’ve enabled us the viewer to identify and empathize with the humans in the film. With the exception of the four or so main human characters, and Gary Oldman as Dreyfus, humanity is reduced to a faceless crowd that provides no emotional impact for the human viewer. The apes offer more insight into human nature than the humans do.
But maybe this was the intention. Caesar and his band of merry simians are compelling to watch, far more than in the previous film. Andy Serkis out-Gollums himself in a performance that is deeply human. His Caesar is clearly a moral and righteous leader who commands and deserves the respect of his fellow apes. We see his “humanity” early on as his mate gives birth to their second child (Cornelius, anyone?). We know from the previous film that he was raised by humans and the movie suggests that this may lead to his undoing. These computer-generated apes are able to emote as effectively as any of the human actors. And the actors that are cast to play humans are pretty good, too. I’ve never seen Jason Clarke before; I haven’t seen "Zero Dark Thirty" but I’ll definitely give it a look now. Gary Oldman, Keri Russell and a grown Kodi Smit-McPhee all give good performances. The CGI is light years ahead of ROTPOTA. The movie is visually breathtaking.
The problem begins with the plot. What started out with so much promise quickly devolves into a banal storyline where, once again, we have apes and humans fighting each other for hegemony. In of itself, that’s not so bad, but whereas in "Rise," the apes were fighting for liberty, which provided that battle scene with high stakes; here, the apes are living in a monkey paradise and they are clearly dominant (the main characters discuss over a campfire how the apes have certain advantages). The stakes are high for the humans; they just want to power up the dam. And those stakes would have felt much greater for the viewer were we allowed to identify with the humans at least as much as we’re made to identify with the apes. At the least, showing us the effects of the pandemic in an extended scene would have been helpful in achieving that. What could have been an epic tale is reduced to “humans want electricity, must fight distrusting apes to get it.” Which leads to the other problem in the film.
The movie wants to make a grand pronouncement that humans are not so much different than chimps. Well, given that a chimpanzee’s DNA is 98% identical to ours, is this a revelation to anyone? Beyond that, however, the film hits us over the head with this mantra by intercutting scenes of apes fighting apes and humans fighting humans amidst the larger battle of apes fighting humans. Yes, it’s a bit convoluted. But the most egregious error is in the film’s sociopolitics that makes the actions of the humans against the apes virtually free of consequence, whereas there is a grand betrayal fomented by a rebellious ape against the ape hierarchy. In essence, although humans are the true enemy, the apes are so untrustworthy that they will betray their own. Given how the struggle between human and ape could symbolize so many conflicts in our society, it borders on offensive to suggest that the formerly oppressed race would resort to betraying its own kind to achieve an end. I don’t want to reveal too much more, but I thought humans got off a little too easily in this film, which dilutes the message of the two species being so similar. The original POTA franchise was all about the apes as allegory for the evils of the human race. Here, Caesar and the filmmakers seem to want to let humans off the hook.
Admittedly, there are some amazing scenes that take place. The battle scene is epic. I’m hard pressed to say whether it’s better than the Golden Gate bridge sequence in Rise, but if you’re willing to buy that chimps can ride horseback while brandishing machine guns in both hands, you’re in for a treat. Another great scene centers on Malcolm attempting to retrieve medicine from the human compound to aid an injured Caesar; in one long, unbroken camera track, he ducks and dodges apes who are running roughshod over the compound, until he is cornered by an ape with a rifle. It’s a riveting scene up until that point, where a predictable outcome undercuts the suspense we just experienced. We also aren’t shown ultimately how Malcolm escapes the compound. The power of editing puts all that aside. One simple cut and Malcolm is safe and sound outside the compound. It’s one of many missed opportunities in the film.
Essentially, this is a 45 minute film padded into two-plus hours. Scenes which should have a quick resolution do not, and are later repeated. Take for example, when Caesar and the entire ape village descend upon the human compound to peacefully but assertively confront the humans. He warns Malcolm not to return to the forest. The humans simply want to power up the dam to provide electricity for San Francisco. Does Malcolm make that request then and there? No. Why? Because it gives the writers an opportunity to throw in another scene where Malcolm has to convince Ellie that he must go to Caesar’s village to request passage to the dam. And of course, Ellie and her son must come along. And then we see Caesar and Malcolm confront each other yet again, when all could’ve been resolved in the prior scene. The writers are guilty of this sin on at least two other occasions. Also strange is how the writers abandon Ellie and Alexander with no resolution whatsoever in the third act.
This is a film with great visuals and some great scenes trapped within an overly simple and derivative plot with a political message on the level of "Animal Farm" Cliff’s Notes. I’m hoping the next film will leap ahead a few decades and give me a planet where the apes have established a comprehensive civilization, similar to the original franchise. But given the conclusion of this film, looks like I’ll have to sit through a few more films before it comes to that. First was "Rise," followed by "Dawn." Next, I suppose will be "Shower Of The Planet Of The Apes," "First Cup Of Coffee On The Planet Of The Apes," "Rush Hour Traffic On The Planet Of The Apes" and so on. Just wake me when "OK, No Bullshit, This Is Really A Planet Of The Apes" is in theaters.
RELATED: For the other side of the coin, read Dylan Green's more enthusiastic review here.
Michael Jones is a ten year veteran producer, director, shooter and editor, specializing in marketing and promotions. As an independent, he counts Nickelodeon, TV One, BET, L'Oreal Sony BMG, and R&B artist Brandy among clients. Born in Baltimore, raised in Indianapolis, lived outside of Chicago, Atlanta, greater New York, Princeton, and now Philadelphia, work has carried Jones to Europe, the Middle East and Asia, but he's most at home in front of his laptop. http://qstorm.com.