dir: Matt Reeves
I probably said a lot of similarly effusive stuff around the time that Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out, but I find it disturbing and a little sad to say that some of the best performances that I have seen in this year, or any year for that matter, were delivered by CGI apes.
The alchemy that allows performers and computer programmers to put together something so… incredible, these incredibly expressive eyes and faces, these performances that say as much if not more than words can, are kind of worrying. We are starting to look like something substandard compared to what can be created by these people with arcane skills.
Pretty soon we’re not going to look as real as the cinematic reality they’re coming up with.
There is, hands down, no greater character or performance this year than Andy Serkis / the programmers as Caesar in this film. Caesar looks and acts like such a powerfully believable character, with a face and manner so expressive, so ‘real’, that you can’t help but wonder why the humans don’t look as believable or as vital. All of the leading ape characters look so real that for not one moment did I feel like I was watching a CGI character despite knowing full well that I was.
All the tech wizardry in the world doesn’t help if you’ve got a shitty story. Thankfully, that is not a problem here. In fact, considering the curious position the overall ‘story’ finds itself in, I’d say it’s a remarkable story.
If everything hinges on the original Planet of the Apes movie, yes, the one with Charlton Heston giving his immortal exhortation of “take your stinking hands off me you damn dirty ape!”, and if we look at the title of the film, we pretty much know how things are eventually going to end up. It’s not a mystery. Rise was apparently about the beginning of everything that eventually leads to the apes becoming the rulers of the planet. Dawn would presumably be a film that captures the ‘moment’ when they actually become the planet’s dominant life form.
Because it’s an inevitability, I mean, the ultimate end result isn’t in doubt, there has to be a decent reason to invest our time and energy, and the screenplay manages to find one: the apes’ rise to power is a tragic one. If Caesar is their leader, and he is, at least in their utopia in forests just outside of San Francisco, it’s not because he desires power, either over apes or humans. It’s because he’s trying to look after his people.
In the ten years that have followed the collapse of the world due to a genetically engineered virus that’s eventually dubbed ‘simian flu’, the apes have managed to set up a cosy life for themselves. Caesar’s time with humans, the changes wrought upon him, leave him very wary of humans, but also leave him in a somewhat transcendent state. He’s smarter than the average ape, or human for that matter, and he’s using that knowledge to change the apes around him too, regardless of their species.
Chimps, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas live in harmony, thanks to Caesar. They have their rule that “Ape must not kill Ape”, they have their roles, and they even have a school, lead by the wise orangutan Maurice, who is also Caesar’s friend and close adviser from Rise.
All of Caesar’s ‘old guard’ from the first film have heightened intelligence because of the drug / virus Caesar exposed them to, but presumably their subsequent generations have inherited the higher intelligence (and the tentative stages of being able to talk) genetically. Wisely, speech is used very sparingly, especially by the apes. When they do speak, it makes an impact.
Along with higher intelligence, some of these great apes, like Koba, also retain their hatred of humans. Koba kowtows before Caesar when he has to, but we know he’s plotting, planning and seething with hatred, biding his time. I don’t know if he hates Caesar or the humans who experimented on him more, but maybe he has enough hatred for both.
When the humans arrive, it’s a shock. It’s a shock to them too, because presumably they didn’t know what was going on with the great apes in Muir Woods National Park. They are lead by Malcolm (Australia’s Own Jason Clarke), who is fascinated by what he finds, but unfortunately many of the humans around him are fuckheads, especially Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who shoots one of the apes just because.
Carver blames the apes themselves for the collapse of civilisation, as if they themselves engineered the virus, and not James Franco’s character from Rise. If he could, Carver would kill every ape he sees, from Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Zee, because they finally made a monkey out of the whole human race. Carver’s stupidity aside, there are humans who are even more dead set against the apes, like their de facto leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).
At first he refuses to believe the apes pose any threat to the human’s plans to restore civilisation to what it was like before, because they’re apes. Even though San Fran looks like shit, this group of humans has fought long and hard to carve out an enclave where the misery and depredation of the last 10 years could be staved off. Their fuel / generator supplies are about to run out, and they have a plan to use hydroelectric power to turn on the lights again. Power means light and communications, and presumably catching up on ten years of emails, Facebook updates and tweets.
Problem is, it’s only through the ape utopia that they can get to the hydro scheme.
Malcolm seems like a calm, scientific type, and he has no mistrust towards the apes. In fact, he seems to fit in more with them than with most of the humans. He and Caesar form an unlikely bond (unlikely not in the sense that it would happen in the film, but unlikely in that the two camps seem to be so fundamentally at odds), because both can imagine a world where the humans and apes live comfortably together, though not side-by-side. Zero other humans share this desire, and neither do the apes, really. Only Caesar is keeping them in line.
Caesar has his own family, a wife / queen who’s just about to give birth, and an older son Blue Eyes whose job it is to look sad and rejected, as if his father’s love or attention is not enough. We see Caesar put himself between a wounded Blue Eyes and a massive grizzly bear to save him, but it’s Koba who kills the bear. Badly wounded, Blue Eyes, perhaps from a position of feeling inadequate, wonders who would give him more respect, Koba or his own father?
It’s funny that I can talk about these motivations and such. Most of the apes still communicate through sign language, helpfully subtitled for us, but most of what we figure out is from the incredible expressiveness of their faces.
And their eyes. Their eyes are incredibly real looking. So much soul, so much feeling exudes from them that you can’t believe their sorrow or their anger is not real.
The humans start planning to take the apes out, the humans who don’t listen to Malcolm, but it’s Koba and his hatred of the humans that strikes the match of revolution. Koba knows that, for all their intelligence, without guns the apes can’t prevail against gun nuts. It leads to the strangest and funniest moment of deception you could imagine, when Koba tries to convince two good ol’ boys at a firing range that he’s harmless. The way he does it is hilarious. What he does with it is not, because his rage issues lead to much misery for human and ape kind.
The way Koba contrives to incite and enflame the ape nation are straight out of Machiavelli, and it’s a tragedy for both sides. Mistrust and an irrational hatred on both sides seems to be what ultimately leads to humanity’s downfall, more so than the virus or the apes themselves.
Yep, it’s a tragedy for all concerned, and just like in Rise, we feel, as Malcolm does, conflicting loyalties. Who should we be really be siding with here? Because, obviously, I don’t side or support any group trying to exterminate or subjugate another group (it’s impossible to side with Koba himself, because he’s pretty evil), but maybe the apes just want it more?
If there’s a weakness to the story, it’s possibly the surreal way that the story tries to rap up, with a battle atop a tower, two opponents fighting it out to the death, with most of the ape population conveniently in a tower they showed no interest in previously, with a ‘crazy’ human at the bottom of it planning to kill them all in one fell swoop. Nothing felt convenient about most of the script, or most of the choices Malcolm or Caesar or the people around them make. This climactic ending felt awfully arbitrary, to an extent, but otherwise it caps off a tremendous, deeply felt, oddly moving film.
Caesar is a tragic hero, and I only wish our human leaders were half as noble as he is, and the inevitable ape overlords who will take his and our place.
9 times the sight of an ape on a horse with two machineguns should have been hilarious, but only made me sad out of 10
“I'm saving the human race” – sometimes you have to destroy a village to save it – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes