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Hail Caesar: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes delivers the goods

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not only superior to its 2011 predecessor Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but it stands among the very best of the entire, esteemed sci-fi franchise. (Tim Burton’s 2001 remake/reboot is best forgotten in any universe.)

The story takes place 10 years after the events of Rise, with the intelligent apes having left the Golden Gate Bridge after a lengthy siege to find sanctuary in the forests of Northern California. Under the leadership of Caesar (Andy Serkis again), the apes have established their own civilization and done a pretty good job of it, too. Having witnessed human folly first-hand, he emphasizes family, community and homogeneity.

The intervening years have not been so kind to the human race, which has been decimated by a pandemic called “the Simian Flu” (one guess why) that has essentially and effectively caused civilization to collapse . A human community exists in what used to be San Francisco, but fuel and power are running out.

The possibility for human salvation exists in the form of an abandoned hydroelectric plant that could restore power to the human city if properly repaired. Unfortunately, it’s situated in the middle of what may euphemistically be called “ape territory.”

A (very) fragile peace is reached between apes and humans to allow the latter to repair the plant, but it’s only a matter of time before that peace is dashed and war becomes inevitable. How that war is begun harkens, appropriately enough, back to William Shakespeare: Caesar is betrayed, not so much by the humans as by his own kind.

The depiction of ape culture is so fascinating and so persuasively rendered that, in comparison, the human struggle doesn’t seem quite as compelling. Then again, that’s long been part of the long-standing appeal of the franchise: One tends to root for the apes.

The screenplay, credited to Mark Bomback, Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa (the latter pair having penned Rise as well), is rife with allegory and symbolism. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes isn’t just a specialeffects extravaganza (although the makeup effects are astonishing) and isn’t just an action film (although those scenes are vivid and exciting) – it’s actually about something. It offers observations – some quite potent and always within the context of the story — about the human condition. Director Matt Reeves does a solid job combining the various attributes into one very satisfying package.

Much as the human characters are filled with mistrust and paranoia, so too for the apes. That the two species are inexorably has long been a component of the best Apes films. That the first films were made in the late 1960s – and the original scripted by Rod Serling – they offered a unique take on race relations, political and social issues, and evolution (both human and primate).

Serkis is again masterful as Caesar, matched by Toby Kebbell as the treacherous Koba and Karin Konoval as the thoughtful orangutan Maurice. (Of course, the actor Maurice Evans played the orangutan scientist Zaius in the original Planet of the Apes and again in Beneath the Planet of the Apes.)

Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit- McPhee play the “good” humans. Gary Oldman, in a role smaller than his billing or his presence in the trailers, plays a “bad” human. They’re all competent if somewhat colorless. When the story focuses on them, it’s hard not to become a little impatient for it to return to the apes.

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