I have never really been a big fan of apes; when I was little, anything simian-related would terrify me. My mom’s friend had a basket of toys in her living room that belonged to her sons and they would have to remove the King Kong figurine before I would go anywhere near the vicinity of the basket. Even if I wasn’t playing with the toys, unless I was assured that the scary figurine had been neutralized I was seriously stressed out. This was also an issue at the fair, where they had a giant animatronic gorilla in a cage as part of an exhibit on the circus; you could get me in the same room as it, but I kept my eye on that thing the entire time, convinced that it would come to life and break free. Between that and the clowns, that display was pretty much my worst nightmare come to life. I have no idea where this fear originated – I don’t recall having any sort of traumatic run-in with any monkeys – and while it dissipated as I grew older, I generally don’t seek out anything that has to do with apes or monkeys. Though I do like sock monkeys, so go figure.
Needless to say, given my childhood phobia I was not a connoisseur of the original Planet of the Apes movies; they had their heyday slightly before my time and I certainly wasn’t seeking them out on my own. My knowledge of the original film is mostly gleamed from other references in pop culture, most notably The Simpsons:
I didn’t see Rise of the Planet of the Apes in the theaters because I simply didn’t think that it was for me; given my checkered history with those of the chimp persuasion, I thought it was best that I sit this one out. Apes that eventually talk and take over the world are a hard sell for me. It didn’t help that I’d been dragged to see the disaster that was Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes reboot with Mark Wahlberg. Yowza – that would be enough to turn anyone off of ape movies. I only relented and watched the James Franco helmed sequel after repeatedly hearing that it was pretty decent. Turn out the buzz was pretty accurate – I quite enjoyed Rise of the Planet of the Apes despite myself. I really got sucked into the story and was surprised by how invested that I became in a prequel to a franchise that I had little to no interest in. It wasn’t a perfect film, but it was far more entertaining than I anticipated; it was enough to not only win me over, but make me actually look forward to its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Yet when the new Planet of the Apes film was released, that old ambivalence resurfaced. Usually when any big summer movie is released that I have any remote interest in, I see it opening weekend. I had multiple opportunities to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but I just was pretty “meh” about the whole thing. Whatever enthusiasm that the 2011film had generated had slowly eroded over time; I was once again skeptical that I would find the next installment of inevitable ape domination all that compelling. But once again, critical buzz got the best of me – the general consensus was that the film was one of the better blockbusters of the summer. Admittedly, that is a pretty low bar given this summer movie season, but the promise of a film that wouldn’t suck was appealing enough to get me to finally commit to going to see it in the theater. James Franco wasn’t going to be in this installment, but Jason Clarke was his replacement which in my world is an even trade.
The first act of the film, I wondered if everyone else had watched a different movie than I was watching; I found the initial thirty minutes or so to be painfully slow. Since ten years had elapsed since the events of the last film, they had to spend some time orienting us on what has happened to the world. They also had to introduce the new human characters and explain the dynamics of the ape hierarchy. That’s a lot of ground to cover and it wasn’t always that compelling, especially when the apes are using sign language to communicate. I have no problem with subtitles, but they weren’t what I was expecting for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It was world building and it was necessary set-up, but I wish that they hadn’t spent as much time on it or had done it in a timelier manner. It wasn’t completely uninteresting, but I found my mind wandering a bit and was fighting the urge to check my cell phone to see how much time had elapsed (never a good sign).
I can’t put my finger on the exact moment, but somewhere in the second act I slowly was drawn into the film; perhaps it was because the action picked up a bit or perhaps it was the apes started talking more. Whatever it was, the film began to patiently reel me. The human characters were never all that interesting and mostly served as plot devices. That’s a waste of the talents of the actors that they assembled (the aforementioned Clarke, Gary Oldman and Keri Russell), but the film isn’t called Dawn of the Planet of the Humans. The humans are a necessary evil; there would be conflict eventually without them, but they certainly provide the spark to move things along. The franchise lives and dies on the apes and the philosophical differences between Caesar and some of his followers may not necessarily be completely new terrain but it was well done and fairly compelling. Actually, it must have been more than fairly compelling, because by the final act of the film I was fully in on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; it totally snuck up on me, but I was emotionally invested in what was unfolding. Of course, we know that the apes are eventually triumphant – it’s right there in the title – but I was curious to see if this film would deal them a setback on their way to world domination or who would be leading the charge. I was really curious how this all would unfold.
Andy Serkis continues to do revolutionary work as a motion capture actor and is primarily responsible for giving this movie its spark. If Caesar fails to be a compelling character, this movie simply wouldn’t work and Serkis more than delivers. In fact, all the motion capture actors deserve a tip of the cap; it is ironic that the CGI-created characters are more nuanced and three-dimensional than the actual three-dimensional people on the screen. Caesar, Koba, Ash, Blue Eyes and Maurice (my personal favorite) are fully realized characters that have distinctive personalities and points of view. Most of the older apes all experienced abuse at the hands of humans, but it has impacted them differently – some strive for peace while others are hell-bent on war. The dynamics of the ape community are complex and realistic – the struggle for power is clearly a universal trait. Watching a coup unfold is exciting, even in the animal kingdom.
Some other thoughts:
- Perhaps the most one dimensional of the humans was played by Kirk Acevedo. It took me until halfway through the film to place where I knew him from, but then it dawned on me that he was Alvarez on HBO’s Oz. Wish he’d been given more to do, but still good to see him.
- Thought I could keep all the different apes straight based on their personality, I could not for the life of me remember all their names. So I dubbed the member of the clan that challenges Caesar “Ape Hitler.”
- James Franco does appear in the film through footage from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which apparently came as a surprise to James Franco.
- A co-worker asked me to explain the status of the humans and apes at the beginning of the movie. My explanation “The humans have practically been wiped out by a virus and small bands of survivors are running low on limited resources. The apes are just chillin’, hanging out in trees, wife-ing up, having babies and learning to read.”
- I mentioned this in a previous Pop Culture roundup, but there are some short films that close the gaps between the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the beginning of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
- One point of contention – the apes now ride horses. Isn’t that a little disingenuous for a group that was all riled up about how they were treated by humans to use another animal as their source of transportation? #apephilosophicalquandary
- I believe this film marks the first time that Andy Serkis has received top billing in a film. Good for him and well deserved!
- For the record, it didn’t necessarily look like the humans were making the best use of their limited resources. I’m no conversationalist, but they could have made some smarter choices.
- It is a little unsettling how quickly the apes pick up the handling of automatic weapons. This does not bode well for humans down the road.
Once Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gets going, it is a quite fun film. I could have done with some slightly different pacing and some better development of the human characters, but I walked out of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with my interest in the future of the franchise rekindled. I’d be perfectly OK with the next installment focusing solely on the apes – they are really the only interesting part – but I’m guessing that is unlikely. This has definitely been a slow summer movie season, but this film was not enjoyable simply because it compared favorably with the other dreck that has been released. This was a fun movie on its own merits and while I have no doubt that my enthusiasm for the next film will wane a bit in the time it takes to produce the newest installment, I’m still looking forward to what the apes are up to next.