Past the Popcorn: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

by Jeff Walls

Based on the novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, the original Planet of the Apes film inspired a franchise that included five movies between 1968 and 1973.  After a forgettable Tim Burton remake in 2001, the franchise was rebooted in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  While it is often referred to as a reboot, that movie stayed true enough to the original franchise that it could also be considered a prequel.  The franchise now continues with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which logically advances the progression from the events of the 2011 movie towards the events depicted in the 1968 original.

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-insetAfter a credit sequence that creatively explains how most of the human population on Earth was destroyed by either a virus or war, the film picks up ten years after the events of the 2011 movie.  After disappearing into the woods above San Francisco at the end of that movie, the apes have continued to evolve.  They walk upright, ride horses, and even wear homemade surgical masks.  They have managed to stay out of the human wars and created a thriving community for themselves where they continue to evolve as a species.  The leader is Caesar, who has not seen a human in two years and wonders if they have all been wiped out.

He gets his answer when a small group of human survivors stumble into their territory.  The humans are part of a survivor camp located in San Francisco that is hoping to use the nearby dam to generate power.  One of the leaders of this group, Malcolm, manages to communicate their desires to Caesar, who cautiously allows them to work at the dam.  Some of the other apes are not as trusting as Caesar, though, and they suspect that the humans have deadly intentions.  Their distrust soon evolves into all-out war, not just between the humans and the apes, but between factions of the apes themselves.

The first thing that stands out when you watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the special effects.  They are phenomenal.  The ape characters are created using such fine detail that every single strand of hair is distinctive from those around it.  No two apes look alike and you can tell one ape character from another just as easily as you can tell two human characters apart.  The effects don’t stop with the apes, either.  A herd of deer is terrifically realized, as was a giant bear.  Beyond the animals, the digital effects are also used to realistically create a post-apocalyptic San Francisco and the movie’s exciting climactic battle.  Even though cinemas have been crowded with stunning visual effects this season, this movie stands apart and will surely make the Academy’s shortlist come Oscar season.

Speaking of the Oscars, one has to wonder if this could finally be the year that an actor gets recognized for work in performance capture.  The undisputed champ of the art is Andy Serkis and he returns to give a spectacular performance as Caesar.  His performance is so remarkable that despite the fact that he is a simian, Caesar proves to be the most human character in the movie.  His every thought and emotion is portrayed wonderfully through the often subtle, never cheesy facial expressions that Serkis gives him.

The movie is impressive from start to finish.  It looks terrific, the story moves at a good pace, and the action scenes are as exciting as any others we have encountered this year.  It may run a little long at 130 minutes, but there is nothing in the movie that stands out as something that should have been cut.

Over forty years after the franchise initially took off, it seems that Planet of the Apes has once again become one of cinema’s more interesting franchises.  It will be fun to see where they take it from here.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, and Century Federal Way.

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