When we arrived for a screening of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, my partner in all things requested two tickets to “Angry Monkeys.” It took the ticket seller a beat or two to catch on, but once he did he started laughing, at which point she insisted, “They’d better be angry, or why would be going to this?” (When we saw Magic Mike a couple years ago, my schtick in line was that I thought I was being dragged along for “another one of those boy wizard” movies, feigning ignorance to the fact that I was about to spend a couple hours in the company of male strippers, at least cinematically. We have fun.) On that front there was no disappointment. If you see only one movie this year featuring hyper-intelligent simians on horseback firing automatic weaponry…well, there shouldn’t even be a question, really.
The movie revival that seemed ill-advised a couple decades ago when The Simpsons mocked the very notion of its adaptability and even more inevitably disastrous when Tim Burton took a crack at a reboot enters into full-fledged franchise territory with the follow-up to 2011’s surprisingly well-regarded Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Director Rupert Wyatt has moved on, replaced by Matt Reeves, who previously surmounted tricky films like the found footage Godzilla riff Cloverfield and Let Me In, a remake that seemed horribly unnecessary until Reeves found the fresh art in it. Dawn takes place a few years after its immediate predecessor, with the accelerated apes living a peaceful life in the California woods, convinced the humans have gone the way of the dodo thanks to the virus unleashed at the conclusion of Rise. That’s not the case, though, and soon a surviving band of human unwittingly wanders into the apes’ territory, hoping to revive a derelict electricity-producing dam. This sets a conflict into motion. Both sides are wary of one another, but the cautious, diplomatic movements of various leaders are ultimately undone by rogue hotheads in actions that adhere nicely to Steven Soderbergh’s recently shared “one asshole theory.” That’s absolutely all it takes to undo the good works of others.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes isn’t quite as profound as it wants to be. It makes big points about societal breakdowns and human nature that aren’t quite as interesting or shrewd as the filmmakers seem to think. Still, any big budget summer movie aspires to though about a subject greater than the coolest ways for robots masquerading as cars to shift between their car and robot guises deserves some extra credit. Reeves has a nice handle on how to frame the action sequences, and allows himself a nice flourish here and there, such as the shot focuses on the turret of a busy tank. The real star of the film is the technology, as evidenced by the choice to begin and end the film on the eyes of Caesar, the proto-superape played through motion-capture technology by Andy Serkis, the Marlon Brando of such acting. It may be unnerving for those of us who prefer the sight of flesh and blood actors over artfully arranged pixels, but its hard to deny that there’s still true artistry and indeed true acting on display whenever Caesar is on the screen. Indeed, the movie sags whenever he’s away, as the undoctored likes of Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman (who has apparently committed to just playing variations on Lieutenant James Gordon from here on in) seem hollow and comparatively bereft of humanity. The thought of ceding all cinematic storytelling to computerized finessing is dismaying enough without Serkis and his cohorts making such a persuasive case for it.