When Rise of the Planet of the Apes was released in 2011, I couldn't scoff loud enough. "What the heck is this monkey movie?" I was heard to remark. The idea of a prequel to 1968's Planet of the Apes, starring (of all people) James Franco, sounded idiotic. Was anyone really wondering where the apes came from? Especially when Tim Burton's horrific "remake" faltered so mightily only 10 years beforehand? It seemed like a blatant cash-grab from a studio with no ideas and an increasingly stagnant franchise on its hands.
But then, driven by sheer boredom, I popped it on one day. And I was surprised to find a calm, contemplative film that examined the relationship between man and animal, and posited why we found it so easy to mistreat creatures merely because they lack the brain power of their more-evolved brethren.
I became a true believer. And RotPotA's sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, turned out even better than its predecessor.
It picks up several years after Rise; the apes have started their own self-sustaining community in the forests near San Francisco, raising families and keeping to themselves. But when a small group of humans (led by Zero Dark Thirty's Jason Clarke) stumble upon the ape town, Caesar (Andy Serkis) must balance his belief that not all humans are awful with the foresight that interactions with the outside world will surely complicate the calm, quiet lives of his ape brothers and sisters.
Spoiler alert: The apes interact with the humans, their lives are complicated, and the dawn of the titular planet begins. But that knowledge doesn't harm the movie, except for the occasional reminder that this is only part two of a multi-part tale and closure is still a bit over the horizon.
Because RotPotA was such a success, we're gifted with a much more talented cast for the sequel. Which isn't always a good thing: Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee are absolutely wasted as the stakes-increasing, "gotta keep them safe" girlfriend and son of Clarke's Malcolm. But we also get Gary Oldman, who's painted as the villain in the trailers but might be the most reasonable, logical character in the movie. As the leader of the San Francisco collective, his concern is the hundreds of humans under his command, not attempting to understand the mindset of some genetically altered monkeys. The apes are a threat to the survivors' mental stability (many blame them for the "simian virus" that decimated humanity in between RotPotA and DotPotA) and their long-term existence (ape town is in the way of a dam that may restore power to the city) so any plan that gives any consideration to their well-being is, in his mind, a foolish one.
That's a testament to the fine script from Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver: every character in the film has a rational point, even the ape antagonists who disagree with Caesar's human sympathies. It's only when they're forced to work together that the more devious elements of certain personalities emerge, and everyone else's best-laid plans falter.
More than anything, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the Andy Serkis show. Caesar's facial expressions, his interactions with other apes, the loving gestures towards his wife and children; these are all Serkis. His work as Gollum, while impressive, always seemed a bit too cartoonish for all the praise heaped upon it, but he leaves no room for criticism here. Despite numerous scenes with no spoken dialogue, Serkis's physical gifts add life to his creation and expertly convey his increasingly human-like emotions. The man is a master of his craft and will hopefully be considered as such when awards season rolls around.
Because these movies would not work with makeup or monkey suits; they'd be equally embarrassing with a pack of fully computer-generated apes. After years of soulless CGI sucking all the joy out of Hollywood blockbusters, this near-perfect union of human emotion and digital imagery may end up being our saving grace. But that's only half the battle; it takes an Andy Serkis to make that union something really special.
Director Matt Reeves, the commercially and critically acclaimed mind behind Cloverfield and Let Me In, understands from moment one that Caesar and his apes are our stars. As we reach the climatic finale, concern about the safety of our favorite apes far outweighs any worries about the human characters. And therein lies the brilliance behind what Reeves and his screenwriters have put together here: emphasizing the basics and using classic storytelling tropes to have their audience to fully invest in a pack of intelligent apes, and when necessary, root against their human adversaries.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it's a very solid bit of entertainment with a tried-and-true structure that works. As my brother noted, it actually borrows its main plot twist almost note-by-note from Oliver Stone's Platoon. But to me, there's nothing shameful about appreciating the best blockbusters for coming competently produced with defined characters and some respect for our intelligence. It's not that the bar is set low by other garbage; it's that most audiences unconsciously recognize a well-constructed, time-honored story when they see one, and respond appropriately. The latest Spider-Man cash-in may bring in a couple hundred million dollars, but that train is running out of steam. As for the monkey movies? Theirs is an audience that's hungry for more.