Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The wittiest line in Birdman is a quote from Roland Barthes: “The cultural work done in the past by gods and epic sagas is now done by laundry-detergent commercials and comic-strip characters.” Few contemporary movies transform comic-strip characters into mythic heroes and propel them into resonating odysseys as thrillingly as the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise. Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (11) questioned the ethics of animal testing and conveyed the catalytic impact of a chattering creature learning language. Matt Reeves’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a true science-fiction epic. It renews the idea of a primal “territorial imperative” as war breaks out between talking apes and desperate humans for the streets of San Francisco in the not-so-distant future. The movie came out this month on DVD and Blu-ray; the opulent “Caesar’s Warrior Collection” includes both films, plus a Caesar ape head, a 32-page booklet about “building an icon,” and “four collectible battle-ready ape character cards.”</p>

Comparable in its scope and populist spirit to Spielberg films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s the best work so far from Reeves and a prime example of American filmmakers’ knack for creating something fresh out of merchandise fit for yard sales. (The director’s second-best film is Let Me In, a 2010 remake of the Swedish horror film Let the Right One In that both honored and transcended it.) Born in 1966 in Rockville Centre, New York, he lived briefly in Wantagh, then moved to Los Angeles before grade school. Reeves grew up watching Spielberg movies and Star Wars. So did his friend and colleague J.J. Abrams, who is now making Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The fame they won in their mid-teens at Super-8 contests and festivals in L.A. led to an unlikely assignment: restoring and cataloguing Spielberg’s own 8mm movies.

In our interview, Reeves called the Planet of the Apes series “my Star Wars before Star Wars.” When I reminded him that he was only 2 when Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes opened in theaters (1968), he confessed: “My introduction to Planet of the Apes was the television series, and then I must have seen the originals on TV or in revivals. I know I had the records, the comic books, the toys.” Pierre Boulle wrote the source novel in 1963; the prime-time live-action TV series appeared in 1974—the same year Marvel started producing Planet of the Apes comics—and a Saturday morning cartoon series, Return to the Planet of the Apes, aired in 1975. Reeves said he was drawn to the movie series largely “because of the John Chambers makeup” for the apes. (Chambers was the makeup whiz portrayed by John Goodman in Argo.) But his film employs performance capture rather than prosthetics to get you under the fur of its simian characters, especially its heroic lead chimp, Caesar. What makes Caesar charismatic and profoundly moving is Andy Serkis’s intuitive embodiment of a super-chimp who’s learned to stand on his own two feet.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

“When I was watching Rise again,” Reeves said, “I had a son who was learning how to talk. I was studying Andy Serkis doing Caesar learning to talk and looking at my son and seeing ways in which he was an intelligent animal trying to come into articulation. Caesar’s desire to speak, the urgency of it, the desire behind the eyes—it also connected to the instinctual side of myself, or what I thought I saw inside myself.”

The whole movie is excitingly contemporary and complex, not nostalgic or toy-like. According to Reeves, servicing the franchise required him to include just one fantasy aspect: the existence of ultra-intelligent apes: “I wanted to ground everything else in realism as much as possible—as absurd as it sounds, to find realism in the world of this movie.” I told Reeves that Dawn reminded me of an insight the British realist Paul Greengrass expressed to me a dozen years ago: “Today, the major clashes are between two peoples trying to occupy the same bit of land—and armed nationalist campaigns, in conflicts over shared terrain, can only turn oppressed minorities into oppressive minorities.” Reeves’s response: “You’ve made my day.” He considers Greengrass’s United 93 to be “a masterpiece; it affected me in so many ways.”

Now more than ever, Dawn seems wired directly into the zeitgeist. It’s freaky to see military weaponry deployed in an American city—San Francisco—as its streets go up in flames, or to watch a super-swift re-enactment of a fictional “simian flu” destroying human communities. And as portrayed in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, that plague had its origins in the second generation of a drug designed to reverse the effects of a human disease: Alzheimer’s. It proves to be far more efficient at increasing apes’ intelligence and killing people.

Andy Serkis

In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, set 10 years after the previous movie, ape society has stabilized in Muir Woods. Humans who witnessed the apes swarming across the Golden Gate Bridge a decade earlier have died off. Hundreds of Homo sapiens survivors make their home in San Francisco. These humans need power. The only source available is a hydroelectric dam in Marin County that an architect named Malcolm (Jason Clarke) hopes to get up and running.

When Malcolm’s task force penetrates the apes’ territory, the resulting close encounters of the simian/human kind destabilize each society. Malcolm and Caesar ultimately achieve a hard-won faith in each other. In the apes’ sometimes funny, always potent mixture of sign language and spoken English, Caesar’s simple utterance “Trust” becomes more affecting than his bellowing one-syllable commands (“No!” “Go!”). But desperate parties in each camp undercut Caesar’s peace initiative. Malcolm can’t control either the rampant anti-ape bigotry of an underling named Carver (Kirk Acevedo) or the ruthless pragmatism of his colony’s leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a good man nearing the end of his frayed rope. On the other side of the GG Bridge, Caesar’s right-hand warrior, a bonobo ape named Koba (Toby Kebbell), rebels against dove-ish policies and infects impressionable citizens with his xenophobia, including Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), Caesar’s mixed-up son. The Bay Area isn’t big enough for both colonies because tribal die-hards can’t abide a rival species living several miles away.

The movie overflows with spectacular action-film tableaux of photo-realistic apes hunting deer and battling bear in the dense, towering redwoods, or gathering in Caesar’s strict military formation before the gates to the struggling colony of San Francisco, or storming the makeshift parapets of the city in the chaotic climactic battle. The movie is also replete with touching intimate moments: Malcolm’s son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), teaching the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) how to read a graphic novel, and Malcolm’s mate, Ellie (Keri Russell), nursing Caesar’s ailing wife Cornelia (Judy Greer). The best humor is pitch-black. Koba imitates a circus ape in order to lull armed men into complacence. As Koba gains power and voids Caesar’s rules, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes veers into Animal Farm territory. Suddenly, some apes are more equal than others.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

What makes the movie a revitalizing experience from its hopeful beginning to its bitter end is Reeves’s collaboration with Serkis. This actor conjures the kind of leader who could convincingly declare, like the Bedouin chief in Lawrence of Arabia, “I am a river to my people.” As Caesar, Serkis scales tragic heights when he deflects his son’s apology for following the bellicose Koba. Instead, Caesar apologizes to Blue Eyes for making the initial mistake of valuing any ape, including Koba, over any human, including Malcolm. At the climax, when Koba, in extremis, tries to reinstate Caesar’s guiding rule “Ape not kill ape,” Caesar replies: “You are not ape.”

Reeves summed it up for me this way: “The movie is not about anything as reductive as instinct versus intelligence. It's about the battle within each character between violence and his attempt to navigate it or rise above it. I loved in the first film that Andy wasn't lacking in rage—he was filled with rage, but he somehow restrained himself. This film is really about violence versus empathy. Those are the two poles the characters are always grappling with: violence and empathy. When you can see yourself in others, you're less prone to be led to violence.”

Even in a pop-culture era in which the best fantasy films routinely pit conflicted heroes and heroines against villains who share their anguished, convoluted histories, the Planet of the Apes films stand apart because of the degree of ambiguity they pack into their sweeping narratives. These movies are all the more exciting for explosively casting doubt on conventional wisdom and knee-jerk loyalties. As Caesar struggles to behave like a righteous ape, he compels audiences to question what it means to be honorable, whatever their background, tribe or species.