When Charlton Heston uttered the line “Get your stinking paws off of me, you damn dirty ape” in 1968’s “Planet of the Apes,” he could have hardly imagined that 46 years later they’d still be making sequels to his movie.
But of course, Planet of the Apes is one of the oldest and most successful franchises in movie history, one that has appealed to young and old. And so it’s no surprise that the seventh sequel/remake, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” swung into movie theaters over the weekend.
Simply put, this film sets a new standard for computer graphics as the CG has advanced to the point of actually being makeup. While computer graphics as makeup goes back at least to “The Mummy” (1999), it’s never looked so good as now. So confident in the CG are the film’s producers that “Dawn” opens and closes with a closeup of an ape and why not — it’s that good. WETA, no stranger to apes and ape-like creatures, as they did the effects for “Lord of the Rings” and “King Kong,” has raised the bar for any movie using animals as main characters. At times, it’s nothing short of amazing.
But of course, “Dawn” isn’t just a demo reel for WETA, it’s a story about the end of the world. While zombies still seem to be the preferred method of ending humanity for most audiences, the Planet of the Apes movies were first and remain perhaps the most believable form of the tale.
In that regard, the movie completely succeeds — so well done are the apes (led by “Lord of the Rings” vet Andy Serkis as Caesar) that you can believe they are talking apes; they are, in effect, aliens, or close to it. I can’t think of another sci-fi movie in which the “aliens” get so much screen time and are so well fleshed out, both in concept and creation. The evolution of this new sentient race is at the core of this story, and “Dawn” certainly explores those possibilities with gusto.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
But that’s part of the problem of this film — the humans are essentially window dressing as we watch the apes learn to lie and murder and otherwise act like their cousins. The result is that while this film is on the surface about one possible apocalypse, the filmmakers seem all but totally disinterested in human beings. The humans are, except for a few characters, totally interchangeable set dressings. They act stupidly or unbelievably (even for zombie movies) at almost every moment and are merely something the apes must deal with.
So in effect, the only real story is between the apes. Very tough to believe the humans shown survived losing 99 percent of the population to a super plague. The movie never bothers to show all the death that would be attributed to such a plague, not so much as a random skeleton on the streets or a mass grave. And because of that, we never really see the humans as desperate as they would be — they’re not starving or insane or super tough — instead, they just want to have more electricity. Not that they didn’t have it already, but that they might lose it. Sure they seem sad and a little dirty, and San Francisco is covered with vines, but that’s about the extent of it.
And that, in the end, sinks this film for me. The movie shows humans trying to keep the lights on, and trying to contact other cities when in fact it should have been stupid easy to do so. Five hundred humans just don’t use that much juice. “Dawn” would have you believe that even though the humans seem to have an endless supply of cars, gas and ammo that they somehow can’t power a CB radio unless they get a giant hydro-electrical dam to work. Completely unbelievable, and totally undercuts any sort of empathy for the human storyline — which naturally kills any real chance for allegory, something the prior Planet of the Apes films are famous for.
And so it is in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” — the apes are far more fleshed out and realistic than their human counterparts. And while the apes are interesting, they’re not more interesting than the fact that virtually all humans have died in a plague merely hinted at in the previous film. The film so blithely ignores its own story reality that it guts any chance of this movie having the sort of emotional impact on an audience the way the original did.
As a result, the music has to work overtime in this flick to try and supply some emotion. Unfortunately, Micheal Giacchino’s second attempt to replace Jerry Goldsmith isn’t as successful as his efforts in the “Star Trek” reboots. While professional, the score is so cheesy and overwrought as to kill any real impact. It’s also in so many scenes that when the humans get a CD to play about halfway through the flick, the emotional effect is greatly lessened because we’ve heard so much music leading up to it. That’s not Giacchino’s fault; it’s director Matt Reeve’s for having such an uneven film — a film in which we really aren’t meant to care about the people.
One last thing — this movie doesn’t leave much open for the next sequel. That’s because instead of atomic warfare, the end of man comes via germs. Likewise, the apes are the product of experimentation, not evolution as in the original. No earth completely remade via mega bombs, rather just humans mostly wiped out. Oh, the apes can (and no doubt will) enslave the humans in the next flick, but there’s just no more story there to tell after that … at least until a certain team of astronauts lands on the planet a thousand years in the future.
3 “I know it has ‘Apes’ in the title, but dang …” out of 5 stars.
GIVING CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was directed by Matt Reeves and written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. It stars Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Andy Serkis.