dawn_of_apes_teaser_posterRise of the Planet of the Apes

Director: Matt Reeves

Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman

To avoid the “uncanny valley” — that zone where things seem both too real to be fake and too fake to be real for the movie audience to accept — filmmakers have to get the eyes of a CGI character right. No matter how otherwise convincing an effect may be, if it has dead “doll” eyes, the audience member’s brain rejects it. It gives you the creeps.

In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the eyes of the apes sell the movie. They are always intelligent; they are often kind or cruel, but they feel authentic throughout.

This is key in this film, because we spend a lot of time in the ape’s society; they are the stars of the film, much more than their human counterparts. Any lapses in this, and the film would have become a cartoon CGI fest. Thankfully, there’s never a point where the apes feel anything less than flesh and blood.

The movie opens 10 years after the events of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The opening montage shows the spread of the “simian flu,” a result of the gas that made the apes smart but proved lethal to humans – a result hinted at during the ending credit sequence of the 2011 film. Humanity has been culled down to 1/500th of its former population, and society has collapsed.

The apes freed and evolved in that film, however, are doing pretty well for themselves. Taking up residence in the forest north of San Francisco, we find Caesar (Andy Serkis), the first ape to have gained intelligence, leading his tribe of apes in a society that is thriving. He’s settled down, taken a mate and has a couple of sons. The apes have transformed the forest into a habitat built to their liking, with branches available for easy swinging.

Humanity, however, isn’t adapting to the new world, which is soon to be without power in what’s left of San Francisco when the generators run out of fuel. The good news is that there’s a hydroelectric dam not far from the city. The bad news, an exploratory group quickly finds, is that it’s in the middle of ape country. And the apes aren’t really interested in rekindling a relationship with the human tribe, a position most vocally espoused by Caesar’s second in command, Koba (Toby Kebbell). Where Caesar was raised by a kind scientist, and got to know the good in humanity, Koba was a lab animal; his opinions were shaped by scars and pain. While Caesar is more inclined to hear Malcolm (Jason Clark) and Ellie’s (Keri Russell) case, Koba prepares to go to war.

There are several nice, subtle touches here, more than you’d expect in a summer film. The apes communicate with each other primarily through sign language (learned from their human captors in the first film). There’s the “alien” aspect of dealing with intelligent apes (It’s been said that two societies of similar advancement can’t co-exist in the same environment), and there’s also an examination of prejudice, highlighted when an ape, who finds himself caught behind enemy lines, behaves as humans think apes should behave to escape.

Beyond the motion capture of the actors playing the apes, I’m not sure how the filmmakers accomplished the ape effects (I’m sure it’ll be lovingly detailed in the DVD release). The results are truly remarkable. Director Matt Reeves isn’t afraid to get in close to show facial expressions and lingering shots of the apes’ emotive eyes, and it works to bring home the intelligence of the apes. As presented here, the apes aren’t “also human” as they were in the original films, but are their own form of life, and will build a society their own way.

If there’s one film franchise that is known for sequels, it’s Planet of the Apes, and this reboot isn’t any different. There’s still a lot of story left in this cinematic world.

Random Observations

• It appears that the world as we knew it ended largely through the works of James Franco in the previous film. This isn’t a big surprise; I think we all kind of thought that Franco might one day be responsible for the end of the world.

• Shouldn’t this movie have been Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and the previous one Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, since they were dawning in the last one and rising in this one?

• Gary Oldman, who plays the “mayor” (the title is never really given) of the San Francisco humans, is kind of wasted in the role of war-mongering leader. I almost wish he would have played the part of Malcolm, the human/ape liaison.

• The poster for the film shows apes with guns riding horses in the waters under what’s left of the Golden Gate Bridge. Since apes can’t swim (their muscle mass makes them too dense to float), one would think they’d avoid that kind of water-based attack.

(This review first appeared at http://moviemeltdown.bravesites.com/entries/general/dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes)