Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
Director Matt Reeves Stars Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell USA 2014 Language English (with subtitles for the ape sign language) 2hr 10mins Colour
Return of the Super-Ape
So last time round we left the assorted chimps, gorillas and orang-utans free in the forests near San Francisco, having escaped from mistreatment in zoos and labs led by Caesar, the genetically modified chimp home-schooled by James Franco. Meanwhile, the same experiment that had both orphaned Caesar and given him his enhanced intelligence had, as a busy credit sequence to this film reminds us, triggered a ‘simian flu’ epidemic, that went on to decimate the human population worldwide. The survivors then – being stupid humans – turned on each other, burying civilisation in the process.
The apes, meanwhile, are leading what’s broadly a stone-age existence in their rather stylish village in what had been California. A couple of them chat (in sign language) about how long it is since they saw humans, and ponder whether any survive*… Cue a small party of humans having a tense encounter with the apes.
The bulk of the film concerns the attempts at pragmatic ape-human cooperation led by Caesar and a human called Malcolm (Jason Clarke), and undermined by assorted trigger-happy people and by Koba (Toby Kebbell), a former lab bonobo understandably unwilling to make friends with his torturers.
If that sounds like both an environmentalist/animal rights warning and a post-colonial/revolutionary allegory, that’s because it is that. In the spirit if the original Ape movies of the ’60s and ’70s, this has some big (and not too subtle) messages about the human capacity for self-inflicted damage, and how easy it is to tip a promising situation into disaster. Caesar has echoes of his namesake Julius, but also Jesus/Aslan, Mandela, Lenin, Gandhi and Nehru. That’s a hell of a symbolic burden for one chimp. (Koba, meanwhile, was a nom de guerre used by Joseph Stalin, so you know where you are with him**…)
Someone asked me if I’d sided with the apes or the humans while watching this. The film, like Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, certainly spends more time looking at things from the simian perspective. The casting leans that way, too – other than Gary Oldman, who I’m guessing is on screen for 20 minutes tops, the producers have gone for B-movie actors unlikely to outshine a charismatic orang-utan. Jason Clarke is interesting casting as he looks more like an angry NRA member than a natural peacemaker.
For what is a film that is dependent on special effects, the biggest compliment I can pay it is that I didn’t think about them at all. I did notice the design – the rather the beautiful ruins of San Francisco and an ape village that looks like something built for glamping.
There are problems with The Dawn Of… The pacing is a bit off at times, and it meanders. The message can be a little clanging, and it suffers somewhat because we know where this all going, eventually. And Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, which was a better film, also benefitted from low expectations.
For all that, this is still a very enjoyable movie, with some memorable scenes – the hunt at the start, the lights coming back on – and that sense of moral urgency that you got in 1970s sci-fi. This isn’t the apocalypse-for- kicks you get from directors like Roland Emmerich, but nor is it Chris Nolan-pompous. More, please.
*SEMI-SPOILER I think the film cheats a little on geography, revealing that fair-sized populations of apes have been living about 20 miles from each other, I’d guess, and yet hadn’t crossed paths despite the apes going on large hunting expeditions and the humans still being motorised.
**So it’s also Animal Farm, except not shit.