The Winds of War, by Tyler Smith
We start with the eyes. Focused. Tired. Determined. As we pull back, we see that these are the eyes of Caesar, the hyper-intelligent ape from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It’s been ten years since the events of the last film, and humankind has been decimated by plague, leaving only animals. Caesar has become the leader of ape society, camped out in the Redwood Forest. Things seem to be going well, until a small band of humans happen across the apes. Shots are fired and the tension begins.
This is a great way to kick off a movie, and director Matt Reeves decision to put the apes at the center of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is much of what makes the film work. There are human characters- most of them sympathetic- but they are secondary. It’s jarring at first, but soon comes to make sense. The humans may be holding on, but the earth no longer belongs to them. This is not their world, and, appropriately, it is not their movie.
CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD
If ever there was a film in which the special effects were absolutely key, it is this one. Every ape is computer generated, the actors’ performances fed into the computer through motion capture. If we get even a hint of falsity, the whole thing comes crumbling down. And we come close. In an early scene, Caesar’s son comes face to face with a bear in the forest. The bear looked a little off to me and I became worried. Luckily, everything concerning the apes themselves is spot-on. The way the hair moves, the texture of their skin. It all creates a reality that is believable and, yes, deeply unnerving.
Because, as hard as the apes try to be civilized, they still have a distinctly animalistic quality to them, which makes them a bit unpredictable and dangerous. Over the course of the film, we see them become more and more advanced, through their use of language, technology, and social structure. But they are still very primal, their beastly instincts still in the forefront of their brain.
This is as it should be. It’s exciting to see a movie that acts as a sort of transition. In the last film, we saw the beginnings of the ape advancement and the swift decline of humanity. In this film, we see the societies start to come together, complete with government, laws, and punishment. Indeed, we are seeing the dawning of a new era.
As strong as the film is, as the end credits rolled, I found myself torn. I left the theater with a sense of encouragement. The battle between humans and apes is over, with the promise of a war soon to come. In the meantime, though, peace has been restored. Seems fine, on the surface. But, of course, we all know what’s going to happen eventually. As few humans as there are already, those that remain will be thinned out even more, to the point that they lose their humanity and are used by the apes for experimentation and servitude.
The realization at the end of the 1968 Planet of the Apes was shocking, yes, but it was more than a twist. It was a promise that our time will eventually come and we’ll be wiped from the Earth. It’s a pretty grim vision of the future for humankind. So why does Dawn of the Planet of the Apes feel so safe? Why does it feel so small? Where was the final blow to the humans? Where was the sense of inevitable doom?
It’s not there, and there are two possible reasons why (neither of which I’m happy about). The first is that the studio wants to milk this franchise for everything it’s worth- hardly a new idea– and didn’t want to do in one film what it could stretch into two. Thus, the final war between man and ape is delayed until a later date and a later movie. I understand this instinct of the studio, but if we wind up getting the full war in the next film, it renders the events of this movie small by comparison. It winds up looking like just a snapshot of a larger picture, rather than the picture itself.
The second possibility for why the film lacks the standard sci fi gut punch ending might have to do with the modern studio’s mentality. Though we all know where we’re headed, it’s possible that the studio didn’t want to saddle its summer blockbuster with a downer ending. And so rather than witness humanity’s last gasp, we instead get triumph and solidarity. Yes, the characters are anticipating more violence in the future, but it has no effect on the emotional notes of the ending.
None of this is to say that the film is bad. In fact, it is, in many ways, quite marvelous. The way it is put together and shot creates real tension and fear. Michael Giacchino’s music is primal and powerful, echoing Jerry Goldsmith’s score in the original.
And, perhaps most importantly, the actors are completely committed to the material. Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell deserve singling out specifically for their work as the two ape leaders. Though it has become fairly commonplace to use motion capture to get a digital performance out of an actor, people still feel as though these performances aren’t quite the same as those of a “normal” actor. It’s hard to know how much is the actor and how much is the CGI layered on top of him. But, in the end, we respond to these characters with sadness and joy and anger; all the things we feel towards more conventional characters, and that starts with the actors.
So, in the end, is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes worth seeing? Very much so. I had a really great time while I was watching it, and parts of it have stayed with me since then. But it was the inherent power of the storytelling that ultimately left me with a slight twinge of frustration that they didn’t go further. We are dealing with very sobering subject matter that deserves to be seen and dealt with by the audience. To leave the truly disturbing material off screen- to either be seen at a later date or not at all- is to do a disservice not only to the commitment of the cast and crew, but to the legacy of the clear-eyed, hard-bitten science fiction of the original film.