Now this is how you pull of an excellent remake and a sequel at the same time. Even though Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is officially a sequel to a reboot, it’s also a surprisingly faithful remake of arguably the crappiest installment in the original Planet of the Apes series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
Not only was Battle a low-budget mess of a sci-fi kiddie flick, it also managed to destroy the perfect time loop created by the first four films. You see, the original Planet of the Apes showed a future Earth dominated by apes (Spoiler alert I guess, but who doesn’t know that twist by now?), only to end the surprisingly smart fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, with the rise of the ape army led by Ceasar, giving birth to the future we’ve already seen in the first film.
Since Ceasar’s superior intellect was a result of him being the offspring of the intelligent apes from the future coming back in time, the series created a time paradox where the past could not exist without the future. Think of it like how John Connor could not exist without Kyle Reese, yet Kyle Reese could not go back in time without John Connor.
Battle, the fifth and final film in the series, undid the well-rounded mythology by shoving in an alternate history where apes and people live together in harmony after a lengthy battle brought on by a series of conspiracies and misunderstandings. Dawn takes the same story structure, multiplies the budget by about two hundred, throws in infinitely better writing and acting while delivering the most photo-realistic CGI I’ve seen in a long time.
Planet of the Apes nerds could argue that Rise, the first film in the reboot of the franchise, was a loose remake of Conquest, showing how Ceasar came to power. However, the way both stories unfolded were completely different. Rise didn’t utilize a time travel plot, instead it focused on a genetically enhanced Ceasar and his relationship with characters and situations that did not exist in the original.
Dawn, on the other hand, is surprisingly close in story structure to Battle. Just like in the original, one of the central themes revolves around the apes’ motto, "Ape must not kill ape". The story builds up to a climactic battle between apes and humans, as well as one between two split factions of apes. It even contains a major plot point where an ape murders another ape and blames it on humans in order to incite an attack.
Aside from the obvious budgetary and technical advantages the new film has over the old, it also expands on the mythology of the first reboot while dealing with themes surprisingly smart and insightful for a summer blockbuster.
Rise provided a slow burn in terms of special effects spectacle as it focused mostly on the relationship between Ceasar and the scientist who took him under his wing (James Franco). Dawn, on the other hand, lets us know it’s a different beast right off the bat, with a spectacular set piece showing the apes hunting for food as an obvious homage to The Dawn of Man sequence from 2001 (Pay close attention to the score during this scene).
The story takes place ten years after Rise. The virus introduced during that film, now called The Simian Flu, has destroyed a majority of human life. The apes, on the other hand, have settled into the woods outside of San Francisco and even built a primitive village. One of the best decisions made by the filmmakers this time around is to have the apes communicate via sign language while also grunting very simple sentences instead of assuming a mere ten years of genetically enhanced evolution would result in them talking like Roddy McDowall.
The apes eventually bump into a group of humans led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke, easily the best thing about both Zero Dark Thirty and The Great Gatsby), who’s trying to bring a dam back to life in order bring power to a small colony of humans living in San Francisco. Ceasar (Once again mo-capped by Andy Serkis) doesn’t want to incite war by refusing the desperate humans their basic necessities. On the other hand, Koba (Toby Kebbell), the test ape from the first film who has seen nothing but cruelty from humans, doesn’t trust Malcolm and thinks war is the only option for the apes’ survival.
It’s obvious with its larger emphasis on impressive battle set pieces that Dawn is more of an action film than Rise was. It also deftly examines what it means to be a true leader in especially complex situations. Ceasar has to make some hard decision regarding the future of his kind, including a surprisingly controversial one on how to deal with one of the antagonists in his close circle.
Koba has seen nothing but pain from humans so his prejudice drives his actions to rally up the apes to attack. Even the supposed human antagonist, the trigger-happy military leader Dreyfus’ (Gary Oldman) motivations are explored beyond a black and white approach. A brief scene showing Dreyfus alone with his old iPad says volumes about this character without needing to rely on a single line of dialogue.
Just like Aliens, Empire Strikes Back, and even last month’s How to Train Your Dragon 2 did, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes shifts the franchise into a different genre while raising the mythology of its universe to brand new heights. This is a vastly different film than its predecessor; it’s full blown bona fide post-apocalyptic sci-fi action fare. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) finds a perfect balance between character and spectacle while delivering an intelligent and endlessly entertaining blockbuster that finishes on a high note.
One last thing: isn’t it time the Academy finally recognized motion capture performances for best performance Oscar nominations? Since his legendary take as Gollum in The Lord of The Rings trilogy, the industry has been pushing for a nomination for Andy Serkis and I’m hoping his layered performance in Dawn will finally show the academy that this technology is a tool for any actor to embrace and not just a technical gimmick.
Ceasar in Dawn is not just another piece of impeccably rendered CGI effect, he’s a full-fledged, three-dimensional character brought to life mainly through Serkis’ performance. I realize that the average age of an Academy member is 122 but here’s hoping they finally catch up with the 21st Century.