Monkey Warfare
By Adam Nayman

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Dir. Matt Reeves, U.S., Twentieth Century Fox

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a happy surprise in the summer of 2011. The previously unknown Rupert Wyatt’s crisply directed film (ably scripted by the husband-and-wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the latter known primarily for The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) cleverly used the journey of its simian protagonist, Caesar (motion-capture axiom Andy Serkis) to simultaneously parody and pay homage to the predicament of Charlton Heston in the 1968 original; in both films, a uniquely gifted outsider is imprisoned and antagonized by the members of his sister species, for reasons somewhere in between base fear and a more methodically refined sense of cruelty. Rise’s greatest moment is when Caesar—a chimpanzee whose mother was exposed to an experimental viral-based drug designed to heighten brain functions in Alzheimer’s sufferers—is finally enraged enough by his treatment to roar out “No!” at his captors, a callback to Heston’s George Taylor finally speaking out after half a film’s worth of stoic, tongue-tied torment. For all of the things wrong with it—starting with James Franco’s affectless performance as Caesar’s human pal and extending to most of the rest of its human cast—Wyatt’s movie had an authentic sense of drama and a goofy grandeur. The climax, depicting literal gorilla warfare along the rails of the Golden Gate Bridge, was thrillingly choreographed and edited, as well as refreshingly small-scale.

As the rare prequel to justify its existence, Rise of the Planet of the Apes demanded a follow-up, and the result is an evolutionary curiosity: a film that is at once markedly superior and considerably less satisfying than its predecessor. Picking up ten years after the climax of Rise, with humanity more or less wiped out by a lab-created plague (patient zero having been played, in a cameo that made this Torontonian correspondent smile, by the affable Canadian character actor David Hewlett), Dawn begins with Caesar’s troupe of apes—naturally resistant to the disease and collectively treated with several canisters’ worth of brain-juice—lording over the Pacific coast. Their sturdily built forest fortress is emblazoned in chalk with an all-caps code of ethics, beginning with “APE NOT KILL APE”—one of those massive yet fragile edicts that’s all but begging to be broken.

The most remarkable passages in Rise came when Wyatt dispensed with the human characters and showed the incarcerated Caesar communicating in sign language with his fellow primate inmates (“Circus ape,” explained one benign Orangutan) and ascending to the top of the prison pecking order through sheer force of will. The literal animal magnetism of these scenes was a testament to the work of the special effects technicians of course—no monkeys were harmed in the making of the movie because there were barely any real monkeys on the set—but also to the smart, precise visual storytelling, both in terms of a screenplay that gradually worked itself into a genuinely revolutionary ardor and in production design that nodded slyly to both Franklin J. Schaffner and Stanley Kubrick. If the apes-only scenes of Rise of the Planet of the Apes had failed, the film would have been a disaster; that they succeeded so smashingly is what finally put the movie over the top—an elevation consistently visualized in vertiginous sequences of ascent, most of them punctuated by loveable underdog Caesar standing tall.

Caesar has more swagger in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which has partly to do with his status as the unquestioned leader—the benevolently unilateral dictator, in fact—of the realm, and also the sensibility of new director Matt Reeves, a talented and overbearing filmmaker with an Alfonso-Cuarón-ish fondness for extended single-take set pieces (i.e. the backseat-camera car crash in Let Me In) and a reverence for generic conventions that’s occasionally indistinguishable from slavishness. In Dawn’s early scenes, the portrait of a primitive but basically functional ape society is as earnest, stolid and basically laughable as the N’avi colony in Avatar, with just about as many subtitled discussions about loyalty and trust. It’s also strangely dull despite its fantastical particulars. In the original Planet of the Apes, the haughty, British-accented tenor of the apes’ dialogue was in comic counterpoint to Heston’s arrogant American-isms, but it also gave good actors like Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, and Maurice Evans (who sweetly gets name-checked in the new film) space to create characters; the apes here are mostly visual figures, which works in the case of the elongated snout and distinctive scarring of the usurping bonobo Koba (Toby Kebbell) but renders the rest of them ciphers—a teeming CGI mass waiting to swing into action once the plot’s gears start grinding.

The main cogs are nice humans Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell), who are involved in a plan to restart a hydroelectric dam buried underneath the overgrown foliage of the Muir Woods—the first step in getting their struggling colony on the outskirts of San Francisco back in the game, technologically speaking. Dawn gets its most spectacular image of inter-species tribal confrontation out of the way early on, as Caesar rides into town flanked by hundreds of his fellows to deliver a brief live-and-let-live-or-else speech to the people, who, having been denied access to electricity in the years since society’s collapse, are wholly surprised to see a talking ape. (Yet surely they remember the international news coverage of the men-vs.-monkeys battle of the previous film’s climax?) From there, the script makes a show of having characters on both sides of the divide try to bridge the gap, with Malcolm reaching out to Caesar, when all we’re really waiting for is the commencement of hostilities—an inevitability that Reeves builds to with a mixture of admirable patience and noticeable goldbricking.

It’s one of the nice touches of the script that, pace Jean Renoir, everyone—human and ape alike—has his reasons: both Koba and the designated human villain, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), are self-appointed populist defenders who’ve internalized and skewed the same Darwinian ideology that underpins the entire franchise. In a borderline-affecting scene, Koba shows Caesar his scars as a result of his previous life as a captive subject for human medical experiments, and a more complex movie would have found a way to carry this sympathy forward in a significant way. But then a ballsier movie would have also followed through on the mid-film twist of Caesar being shot by one of his own followers and the blame placed on the homo sapiens. While this turn of events does what it has to in narrative terms—i.e., it gets us to the place where the posters’ promise of angry, six-foot-tall chimpanzees wielding stolen automatic weapons and storming human strongholds on horses can be vividly fulfilled—it also showcases the filmmakers’ ultimate lack of imagination and nerve. It’d be a spoiler to say that it’s later revealed that Caesar survived his wounds—if that were at all a surprise. After all, profitable franchises from Star Wars to The Dark Knight don’t kill off their heroes if they can help it, even if such a bold gesture is exactly what could have given the movie the sort of apocalyptic gravitas it’s clearly aiming at in its fire-and-brimstone middle section.

Simply put: there are no surprises in this movie, formally, dramatically or thematically. It’s slickly produced and sturdily engineered on a plot level, and it makes the requisite politically correct points about guns (they’re very dangerous in the wrong hands, hairy or hairless) and power (it corrupts, absolutely). And while it has some shape to it—the film pointedly starts and ends with the same image, for example—it also doesn’t really drive forward all that much. It’s still officially unclear if the end goal of this series is to actually get us to the scenario at the beginning of Planet of the Apes (unlikely in that its humans can’t charge their cell phones, much less launch spaceships into orbit) or to go in an entirely different direction, and yet by doing nothing truly risky in this installment, Dawn misses its chance at a truly new beginning. Ultimately, Rise and Dawn are big-studio product, and if they resist reducibility here and there—mostly on the level of craft, and also in the very 21st-century-collaborative aspect of Serkis’s computer-assisted acting—their true value is bound up in whether or not they exceed expectations. Rise vaulted heroically over a very low bar; within its deceptively spacious blockbuster structure, Dawn scrapes the ceiling but still feels constrained. Its careful construction could have been sacrificed for a little more genuine craziness. To paraphrase George Taylor’s anguished cries in Planet of the Apes, it isn’t quite a madhouse, and that’s too bad.