It’s been ten long, hard winters since our introduction to Caesar, the intelligent ape, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Those ten years saw a genetically engineered Simian Flu decimate most of the human population and, as the electric lights slowly went out all over the planet, the ape fires began to burn.
Dawn opens with a mass ape hunting scene, as the evolving CGI simians go after a herd of magnificent CGI deer, with their ultimate weapon – the spear. For all I know the forest they’re hunting in could be CGI too, but this doesn’t matter. For what director Matt Reeves (of Cloverfield fame) and WETA are telling us is marvel at how real CGI is now. Look, they are saying, you could be sitting at home watching a David Attenborough documentary about evolving apes right now, instead of this Sci-Fi spectacular, and we bet you can’t tell the difference. And they’re right, we can’t tell the difference. The special effects are STUNNING. But I’m going to be honest here. My expectations were high after all the universal critical acclaim for the sheer artistry of this film, for the compelling relationship dynamics, for the political commentary on important societal issues; and, believe me, all that’s there and more, but I’ve got to say it, in fact I might just whisper it in your ear – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is just a tad too l-o-n-g and a tad too serious, in spite of all that technical wizardry and Motion Capture brilliance.
We spend a long time living with the tribal ape colony, in their fantastical forest home outside a stunning San Francisco in ruins; and too much time reading subtitles at the bottom of the screen (difficult when you happen to be sitting behind a very tall man) because the apes use sign language. This is all serious stuff and I get the reason why. When you’re asked to believe that chimpanzees, orang-utans and gorillas might one day get down to some serious monkey business and inherit the earth, then you’ve got to take that premise seriously, and this film definitely doesn’t disappoint in the this is serious stuff department. And so we get to see the apes’ familial relationships (Caesar and his teenage son are in oddly typical human meltdown, and there’s another Caesar child on the way); we see their primitive ‘cave’ paintings, and the fact that they have a school. Memories of those 1968 damn dirty apes, with their rubber faces and monkey retro clothes are completely forgotten.
Dawn’s ape colony is led by Caesar – all hail Caesar – and his second in command Koba. Caesar and Koba have history, and so the stage if set for a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. The apes are living peacefully in their forest – their No 1 slogan being ‘ape does not kill ape’ – but that’s all about to change.
The apes believe that humans are extinct, but it becomes clear that a group of genetically immune humans are living in the desolate ruins of San Francisco (some fine Concept Art work here), and are rapidly running out of the means to electrically power their settlement. Their only solution is a dam which happens to be right within the ape colony.
The two leading lights in the human colony are Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke.) Our hero, Malcolm, is part of a family unit that mirrors Caesar’s own, and we are constantly reminded of how similar the distrusting apes and humans actually are. After apes and humans discover that they are co-existing on the planet, both Malcolm and Caesar attempt an uneasy truce between the factions. This is made difficult for two reasons – Carver and Koba. Carver is an ape-hating human, who nearly destroys the relationship Malcolm is building with Caesar. Caesar allows access to the all important dam, only if Malcolm and his team give up their weapons. Carver hides his gun and, when this is found, things rapidly begin to go downhill. Koba is a human-hating ape (having been the subject of numerous experiments in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and enters the human colony to find out just how well armed they are – making off with a few automatics whilst he’s at it.
Koba’s difficult relationship with Caesar eventually breaks down, due to idealogical differences, as does Caesar’s relationship with his son. Koba decides to initiate war between the apes and humans shooting Caesar (Et Tu Koba?) from afar and blaming it on the humans, thereby unleashing ape fury.
Guns play a significant role in this film, highlighted by the scene that received so many complaints in the advertising break during the World Cup. This scene is just as shocking in the cinema the second time around. The final epic battle sequence, as Koba, and his fully armed apes on horseback, bring Armageddon to the human colony, shows just what the invention of firepower has done to our civilisation, as these war mongering apes aim those guns right back at us; fully turning the tables when they trap the humans in a cage.
Our human heroes later find Caesar alive and, after a quick surgical repair (Malcolm’s girlfriend is conveniently a doctor), Caesar and Koba fight it out for supremacy. Caesar wins the day, but we must surely spare a thought for the beleaguered, half mad Koba. Wouldn’t you have revenge on your mind if you’d spent your early life trapped in a cage to be used as a permanent laboratory experiment?
As always reviews are subjective. Go see this film. Yes it’s over-long, but it had the difficult task of setting up all the complexities of the ape relationships and ape hierarchy, when most of its subjects are dumb, and just beginning to evolve spoken language.
Go see it for the amazing Motion Capture technology, and see if you can spot Andy Serkis lurking beneath all that CGI.
Go see it for the post-apocalyptic settings, the apes’ forest home and a wondrously overgrown, still majestic Golden Gate Bridge.
Most of all, go see it to become acquainted with an ape called Caesar; because this simian Emperor has his eyes on you, and pretty soon he’s going to rule the world.