Confession: I never saw the original Charlton Heston films in the Planet of the Apes series. I've seen bits and pieces of them here and there, mostly as a kid flipping through the channels and catching snippets between commercial breaks on the Saturday or Sunday afternoon movie that aired on the stations higher up on the dial. Most of what I knew of these films was absorbed through the cultural zeitgeist and pop culture references in things like Spaceballs or Mystery Science Theater 3000. I did see the Tim Burton remake and was not impressed. So, color me surprised when, in 2011, I decided to check out the prequel/reboot of this 20th Century Fox franchise with Rise of the Planet of the Apes and was thoroughly impressed. And it was based on the strength of that film alone that I needed to see the follow-up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. So, I bought and watched the latest on my Apple TV via iTunes this past weekend, and really loved this flick.
Since we know these films are basically leading into the original 60s-era Heston movie, we know that war between the humans and apes is inevitable, and we know who the victors will ultimately be. But, damn, the journey to get there? Excellent, excellent stuff.
It's been ten years (movie-time) since the simian flu leveled the human race and the apes became ascendant. In fact, at the movie's start, head-chimp Caesar and his lieutenant and friend, Maurice, speculate that the humans may have become extinct. This isn't the case, of course, and the moment of first-contact between the two species in at least a decade is one that's fraught with peril.
Throughout the movie, there's a wonderful simmering tension between the various divisions, and the threat of violence is nearly constant. Both the apes and the humans find themselves divided over issues of trust and loyalty, and the relationship that develops between Caesar and Malcolm, our central human protagonist, played by Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty), is borne out of a mutual desire for peace that is not equally shared by their compatriots.
One of the central themes at the heart of this movie is what it means to be 'human' (so to speak). There's a definite fear of The Other on display here, distilled most cogently with Kirk Acevedo's (Fringe) Carver and the ape, Koba. Both are twisted by their prejudices, and Koba bears the scars of his time as a test subject in a lab, where he was tortured by humans. And while Caesar and Malcolm work to overcome the pressures placed upon them by these darker, more animalistic fears, whatever peace they can arrive at is tenuous, at best. A stalemate, or even cooperation, may be achievable, but both are so overwhelmed by the events surrounding them and have come too far to make anything other than temporary accommodations.
There are some very serious issues at work in both Rise Of... and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, with both movies exemplifying important social issues. I always enjoy it when science fiction films can take certain touchstones of the modern world and expound on them in interesting ways, as the original Star Trek was able to do against the real-world backdrop of the Cold War era. There is a certain relevance to these two films, but neither get bogged down as 'message films' that feel the need to beat you over the head with their self-importance. You can look at them as deeply as you need to, or enjoy them as pure entertainment.
Beyond a fine script, the digital effects and set design are massively impressive. A lot of credit has been given to WETA and the motion-capture performance given by Andy Serkis, and rightly so. These mo-cap actors playing the apes have done an incredibly job bringing their respective primates to life, using prosthetic aids to help change their posture, gait, and movements, to make the CGI overlays all the more realistic. On the set design front, a lot of work and detail have gone into making a suitably post-apocalyptic San Franscisco, showing us what the city would look like as nature begins to overrun the area and its human inhabitants have taken to old buildings repurposed for shelter areas and quarantine zones. The forest dwellings of the apes are quite a marvel, as well, and a lot of work has clearly gone into making it look and feel like a community for this burgeoning, intelligent, and connected species.
The iTunes digital release boasts terrific sound and audio, with the surrounds picking up some nice sonic details, particularly during rainy scenes or the roar of a waterfall, and, of course, during the chaotic action of the finale. There's also an array of iTunes Extras, including a commentary from director Matt Reeves and a bevy of behind the scenes production materials, along with an image gallery and theatrical trailers.
All in all, I enjoyed the heck out Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. It's a terrific installment that lives up to the expectations set by its predecessor, and sets the stage for the third film, which is expected in 2016.