In the great history of sequels it is shown that it can be difficult to be as good as if not better than your predecessor. Such classic films like “Godfather Part II”, “Empire Strikes Back”, “Aliens”, “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Dark Knight” are all big examples of sequels that not only match their predecessor but a few of them greatly refined them. This year alone has been a great year for sequels, “How to Train Your Dragon 2”, “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, “Captain America: The Winter Solider”, and even “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”. “Transformers 4” notwithstanding, this is nearly across the board a big success with sequels and continues to demonstrate that it doesn’t matter if your film is a sequel or original. If the movie, is good that’s all that counts.
Now once again here in July we have “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, the sequel to the 2011 hit, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, which was easily the best “Apes” film since the classic 1968 Charlton Heston film. Now “Dawn” is here and not only does it blow “Rise” right out of the water but it could very well be as good as that classic 1968 film. This “Apes” film is not only filled with some of the best special effects since “Avatar”, but it is also filled with impeccable direction, an amazing script, and a demonstration of Oscar worthy acting. This is yet another example that shows you can combine grand scale summer blockbuster action and special effects, with terrific writing. And, as you could already guess, is yet another example of an amazing sequel.
Picking up the story about 10 years after a virus is released across the world at the very end of “Rise”, humanity looks all but wiped out. Caesar and the rest of his ape clan have built up a society for themselves out in the Red Woods. No human has been seen in years and the ape society has since been living in harmony. But, as many of these movie situations happen, just when they begin to think they will be gone forever a group of humans stumbles across the apes. Now the two sides fully aware of the others presence, tensions grow as Caesar and a select few from the group of humans try to keep the peace but forces from both sides may just tip the balance of that peace and start war.
This film begins off in what you can almost say in silent movie fashion. The first 15 minutes is all about the apes. Director Matt Reeves shifts all of the focus onto the apes and helps craft a very interesting society. One of my biggest problems with Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” was the ape society was boring. The design was bland and the ape’s politics was a pale shadowy reflection of our own. This culture is leaps and bounds better. The hierarchy and how each of the apes interact with one another through the use of primitive communication and sign language are all nice little additions and touches.
WETA once again heads up the special effects and motion capture of the apes, using real actors. For those of you unfamiliar with motion capture it is the process of capturing the actors performance and overlaying it with a computer generated costume of sorts. So even though the apes are CGI, these are real actors performing as the apes. The facial expressions, the movement and all of the other acting choices are all from the actual actor. WETA, has shown they are the best at doing motion capture in the business today. From the original “Lord of the Rings”, to “King Kong” to “The Hobbit”, and to “Avatar”, WETA does amazing motion capture and special effects work. This is the best they have done since “Avatar” and in many respects the motion capture work is even better. Layering over real ape characteristics with large amount of realistic looking hair is a tougher achievement than just the blue skinned aliens, like in “Avatar”. We all know what real apes look and act like in real life. So, when a film such as this can convince you of the fantasy illusion and believe in what you’re seeing, than you know this is a special effect achievement.
The actor behind so many of these transformations is Andy Serkis. He has previously played Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” and King Kong in “King Kong”. Now reprising his role from the first film Serkis returns as Caesar, in what should be an Oscar nominated role. He brings such humanity and complexity to a non human character. Caesar is strong and tough, a powerful and well liked leader within his community. However at the same time he is loving and naive and just wants his family to be safe. One of the best written characters of the year, Serkis gives his best performance yet. It’s time to stop ignoring motion capture actors and start looking at them as equals at the Academy.
I mention before that this is further proof you can have grand special effects and action entangled with great storytelling. Some people I’ve spoken to in defense of “Transformers 4” have said to me, “it’s a summer blockbuster what did you expect?” True it’s not an Oscar worthy film yet here is an example that shows summer blockbusters don’t have to dumb themselves down simply because they are summer blockbuster.
From screenwriters, Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa, and Mark Bomback to director Matt Reeves’s brilliant direction, the story is timely and Shakespearian in nature. The original 1968 film brought with it such colorful social commentary, and this does as well. This is a film has a lot to say about the way we treat other cultures, fear what we don’t understand, modern political situations and generalize people we don’t even know. These themes are so subtle that you may not even pick up on them when you’re viewing it the first time around. It’s only after riding home from the movies did I start to realize what themes this film had.
What is not so subtle is the Shakespearian undertones of the story. Clearly this script is in part inspired a little (at the very least) by “Hamlet”. Many aspects of the story are seen here. When viewing the trailer it is never made clear they were going to go the Shakespearian route and it adds so much depth to the story.
Besides Caesar on the most well written character is the ape named Koba. I can’t go into him too much without giving the plot but his tragic back story makes him sympathetic as he is terrifying. Toby Kebbell gives an amazing performance and is a character you won’t soon forget in both the series and the genre.
Heading up an excellent human cast is, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, and Keri Russal (among others). All of which bring good performances to their side of things. Jason Clarke is the main protagonist amongst humans. He, like Ceasar, is hopeful, naive, and wants the best for his family. Jason Clarke provides good chemistry with his co-star Keri Russell. Clarke also is a stronger presence on screen than James Franco was in “Rise”. Unlike the trailers have shown, Gary Oldman is not the big bad villain. In fact, he is in far less of the movie than most of us previously thought he was. When he is on screen he gives a vintage Oldman performance as seen in “Harry Potter”, “The Dark Knight” and “Dracula”. In one scene that involves no dialogue whatsoever will bring you onto the brink of tears. I know this because I started getting a little emotional watching that scene too.
That brings us to the final part and that is director Matt Reeves. I was a little disappointed that Rupert Wyatt from “Rise” was not going to return in the director’s chair. He did a magnificent job in the previous film and I worried for the franchise’s future without the proper director. Yet Reeves came in and does an amazing job. Not only can he handle story and characters well, he gets amazing performances out of his actors, and behind the camera, he provides some ingenious shots. He can also bring a lot of genuine emotion to the picture that is seen throughout the film.
Reeves has already been signed on for the next Apes film from 20th Century Fox, set to be release July 29th, 2016. I could not be more excited for that film but somehow doubt it can match the brilliance of this one. Out of the movies I’ve seen so far this year, this is the best of the them. Not only is it the best of them but this is a masterpiece.