Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” begins with a map of the world, where thousands of people, represented by red lines, travel between great cities, while newsreports intone about a virus, dubbed “the simian flu,” that’s spreading quickly. This virus is eventually traced to San Francisco (shades of AIDS!) and Patient Zero (again!) and the synthetic drug ALZ-112 and 113, created, in the last movie by Will Rodman (James Franco) to cure Alzheimer’s, although it actually led to a few apes becoming supersmart. Humans? Millions are dying. Then billions. Then, gradually, all of those lights, signifying great cities, go dim, and the newsreports stop.
Way to go, James Franco.
We don’t see him in this movie except on an old video recorder, so we don’t know how he felt about causing the end of civilization as we know it. One imagines badly. Thank god he didn’t have to act it.
We see about as much of Franco, in fact, as we do of Pres. Obama, who, in news footage culled from some other crisis (2011 flu? 2012 GOP debates?), warns people to protect themselves. It’s interesting seeing Pres. Obama here because I was thinking about him before the movie began. Specifically this question: Is it a coincidence that the first “Planet of the Apes” movies (1967-1973) occurred during the rise of black power, and this one coincides with our first black president? I’d like to think not but I’m a cynical SOB.
An edict introduced in the first act ...
“Dawn of ... ” is the eighth “Planet of the Apes” movie but the second in this series, following 2011’s “Rise of ...” and it leads to a semantic argument. How much further along is “dawn” from “rise”? Isn’t it actually a step back? Don’t you get the dawn before the sunrise?
It starts, anyway, with a few steps forward. Not only are humans decimated, but our first supersmart ape, Caesar, (Andy Serkis, finally getting top billing), leads a village of apes in the Redwood forests of Northern California. They’re basically a primitive tribe. They use spears, ride horseback, and hunt game. They have huts in the trees, the children are educated (mostly by Maurice, the orangutan, played by Karin Konoval), and moral lessons are handed down to the next generation. Chief among these is: Ape shall not kill ape.
Hollywood truism: a moral edict introduced in the first act always gets broken in the third.
Into this idyllic, primitive ape society wanders a doofus, Carver (Kirk Acevedo, Joe Toye from “Band of Brothers”), who, in panic, shoots and wounds an ape, Ash (Laramie Doc Shaw), friend of Caesar’s sad-eyed son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). Angry apes gather. A few humans gather, too, to bargain for Carver’s life, chief among them, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), whose team, part of the remnants of San Francisco society, includes, Ellie, a CDC doctor (Keri Russell), and their adopted son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee, all halfway grown-up from “Let Me In”). They’re in the area to try to start a water generator so S.F. will have power. But will the shooting lead to war?
Not right away. First, Caesar looks down imperiously with a sneer. Then he yells “Go!” Then he sends his right-hand man, former science experiment Koba (Toby Kebbell), to follow the humans to see what’s what. To see what’s become of them. Bad move. All the deaths that follow stem from this move.
Koba, you see, wants war. “From humans,” Caesar says, “Koba learned hate and nothing else.” But Caesar allows the humans, even the doofus Carver, to return, to try to start the generator. They do. Koba, though, knows that the humans, huddled together in their decrepit buildings, have an arsenal in preparation for a potential war with the apes—or simply because they’re scared to death. After pleading with Caesar, then losing a fight to Caesar, Koba infiltrates the target practice of two rednecks (including Kevin Rankin, making a career out of rednecking: see “White House Down” and “Breaking Bad”), who, oddly, are the only ones taking target practice. They freak at his presence, so Koba plays the clown to get close. Then he steals their semi-automatic. Then they dead. Then Koba have gun.
What does he do with it? He shoots Caesar, blames the humans, and leads the apes into battle against same. It’s a war based on false pretenses. Imagine.
After the war, won by the apes, humans, as well as potential allies of Caesar, are forced into cages. Koba is the new leader and he’s not exactly benevolent. At one point, he tells Ash to kill a human but Ash can’t do it. He says Caesar wouldn’t have wanted it. Koba nods. He understands. He puts his arm around Ash’s shoulder. Then he pushes him down, drags him up the stairs by the top of his head, and throws him over the City Hall balcony. Ape shall not kill ape? No, without cause. Remember?
It’s not a bad scene—I got a whiff of “Animal Farm”—and there are other not-bad scenes as well. But the movie doesn’t have particularly memorable scenes, either. And by this point, what’s the tension?
The tension is whether the truth will out. Will the other apes find out that Koba led them falsely into war? That he accused his victims of his own crime?
There’s a chance because Caesar lives. He’s found by Malcolm and company; but he’s weak and bleeding and Ellie needs supplies to save his life. So they drive to San Francisco.
At this point, the tension is: Can Caesar live long enough to tell the truth about the shooting?
Except, at Caesar’s directive, they go to the house he grew up in, Will Rodman’s house, with the circular window in the attic; and from there Malcolm is sent out to search for supplies so Caesar can be operated on.
Really? That’s a bit of a gamble, isn’t it? Why not drive, with Caesar, to find the supplies, so that if apes find you he can talk to tell them? He can call off the war? “They didn’t shoot me. Koba shot me. Stop it already.”
The short answer, the movie’s answer, is that apes care less about truth than strength, and right now Caesar is weak. It’s not a bad answer—we don’t care about truth, either, particularly in the wake of victory—but the real reason we go back to Will’s house is we need the pause, the moment of reflection, and the moment of bonding between Caesar and estranged son, before the final big battle between Caesar and Koba at the top of City Hall. Which Caesar wins. He has a chance to save Koba, too. You know the bit: Koba hanging by his fingertips, asking for help, Caesar reaching down, Koba reminding him of the first edict of ape society: “Ape not kill ape.” Caesar, with his imperial sneer, decides: “You ... not ape,” and lets him go. Seriously, Hollywood has to stop giving us this scene. It’s boring no matter which way the hero chooses.
More, we’re hardly getting to a planet of the apes, are we? I mean, if this is a dawn it’s a false dawn. It’s actually “One Step Back from the Planet of the Apes.” It begins with a village of apes and humans decimated. It ends after a costly war and ape society fractured. Plus they’re still one small village on a large planet in which humans are still plentiful; and the remaining ones seem immune to simian flu; and they still have guns.
Matt Reeves (“Felicity,” “Let Me In”) directed this one, taking over from Rupert Wyatt, and we get good performances not only from Serkis but from Clarke and Gary Oldman as a shaky leader. Reeves is supposedly directing the next one, too, as yet untitled. Votes? So far we’ve had “Beneath the ...” “Escape from ...” “Conquest of ...” “Battle for ...” “Rise of ...” and now “Dawn of ...” Maybe “Midmorning of ...”? “Tea Time on ...”? “Lazy Sunday Before ...”? I’m a fan, anyway, of a new preposition. Of has just been done to death.