A film series, even a reboot such as “Planet of the Apes,” generally takes a steep downward trajectory into abject sequelitis. Story and characters get lost as filmmakers struggle to keep a brand alive rather than telling a compelling saga.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was an intelligent and chilling reboot to a beloved (although not by me) clutch of movies deriving from Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel and then a 1968 movie starring Charlton Heston.
It took the unusual tack of bringing heart-felt empathy to sentient beings that are not human. It saw the ape rebellion from the point of view of a sympathetic human, a genetic scientist (well played by James Franco), and a genetically advanced primate, a chimpanzee named Caesar.
The new film further develops the conflict between man and ape while upping the ante in dramatic action and insightful character studies amid a political standoff where each side tries to access how to respond to provocations by the other.
Andy Serkis (pictured left) returns as Caesar — the only cast member who does so — and this time he deservedly gets top billing. His motion-capture performance as the mature Caesar is so good you simply forget about all the technical stuff that goes into a human portraying a non-human character.
Caesar is portrayed not just as the alpha-ape but a sagacious leader, compassionate with his fellow apes but with higher intelligence and empathy levels that enable him to weigh all options — the need to somehow co-exist with other creatures rather than yield to the temptation of warfare and all the suffering and devastation it brings.
When last seen, following an epic standoff on the Golden Gate Bridge, Caesar lead his apes into the Muir Woods to the north. Meanwhile a Simian Flu pandemic begun in that film has pretty much wiped out humanity globally. The lights of civilization dim and no human has been spotted by the apes for “ten winters.”
Then a small party of humans stumbles upon the ramshackle wilderness encampment of chimps, gorillas and orangutans — about 2,000 strong — and, sure enough, there’s immediate bloodshed.
Human survivors of the viral apocalypse have built a commune of sorts in the devastation of downtown San Francisco. This search party lead by former architect Malcolm (Jason Clarke), girlfriend-nurse Ellie (Keri Russell) and his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are seeking a dam that lies in ape territory.
Imagine their shock to learn that apes can communicate with advanced sign language and some even speak English in slow, halting tones that underline the gravity of the situation for both species.
A tense truce is arranged between Caesar and Malcolm so the humans can complete their task. Yet hotheads on both sides of the human-ape equation continually undermine any trust that might develop.
Koba (Toby Kebbell), a lab monkey in “Rise,” is on the lookout for any signs of fractures, not to mention opportunities for this ambitious creature to grab power for himself. The same hold true for the humans as misdirected anger swells within their ranks, only barely managed by its leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a former lawman.
This stalemate of mistrust and molten anger, that puts extremists on either side in the driver’s seat, is not unlike our nation’s current political dysfunction. I wouldn’t want to push this metaphor too far, but let’s just say the filmmakers cannot be unaware of the familiar stench of a rotting political process.
The screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (the latter two the married co-writers and co-producers of “Rise” and now “Dawn”) is among this year’s best. It cagily shifts points of view and locations while creating mounting tension by the minute.
Under the direction once more of Matt Reeves, “Dawn” charts an unfolding tragedy of missed signals, bad intentions and misguided politics that heads humanity toward its own possible doom. Yes, this is a summer movie and a tentpole, but it’s so damn smart and compelling that now you’re impatient for the next film.
Hurry up, guys!
Of course, even if a screenplay is camera ready, these things aren’t easy: This is a 3D movie coupled with complex motion capture performances that see hundreds of apes on screen, charging on foot or horseback into battle from out of frightening smoke and fog.
The 3D cameras also roam through a verdant old-growth forest amid gloomy rain and mud to capture the eye-popping beauty of this treacherous craggy landscape. (Locations include a lush rainforest in British Columbia and another outside New Orleans.)
The scope and scale of “Dawn” is a profound state-of-the-art movie triumph immeasurably aided by DP Michael Seresin’s masterful, muted tones that integrate magically with Joe Letteri’s visual effects and James Chinlund’s production design.
Michael Giacchino’s magisterial score underlines rather than overwhelms the action and excited deliberations.
Earnest, dark but always clear-headed, “Dawn” is the rare sequel that improves and expands smartly on its predecessor. Like Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, this “Planet of the Apes” series takes one-time camp material seriously and draws from that tainted source an extraordinary saga of mankind at its best — and absolute worst.
Opens July 11, 2014 (20th Century Fox)
Production company: Chernin Entertainment
Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Jon Eyez, Enrique Murciano, Keir O’Donnell, Kevin Rankin, Jocko Sims
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenwriters: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Based on characters created by: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Producers: Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Executive producers: Thomas M. Hammel, Mark Bomback
Director of photography: Michael Seresin
Production designer: James Chinlund
Music: Michael Giacchino
Costume designer: Melissa Bruning
Senior visual effects supervisor: Joe Letteri
Visual effects supervisor: Dan Lemmon
Editors: William Hoy, Stan Selfas
PG-13 rating, 130 minutes