Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Here is my take on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Please feel free to weigh in with your thoughts — pros, cons, yays, nays, new series rankings, whatever — in the comments section. In other words: have at it, nerds.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rupert Wyatt’s smart and involving revival of the long-dormant Planet of the Apes franchise, ended on such a note of triumph that it was easy for both casual and committed fans the series to forget how uncharacteristic this was for an Apes movie. Rise had its moments of sadness and loss, of course, both human and animal, and its end-credit map of how simian flu spread across the globe offered foreboding for the next chapter. But its climactic sequences of Apes running wild approximated a bigger, more fun version of the violent outbreak that closed Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, its closest relative in the previous series. The apes weren’t out to kill all humans; they just caused some beautifully shot mayhem in the name of ape freedom. Their endgame was a forest settlement to call their own; the destruction (mostly non-lethal) was just collateral damage.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes keeps the collateral damage, loses the triumph — which makes it a clear successor to the original films.

It picks up ten years after the end of Rise, after the simian flu has decimated humanity. Caesar (Any Serkis and a bunch of animators) now leads a massive ape tribe in the Redwood Forest outside of San Francisco. Humans maintain an outpost in the city, but they’ve lost power. A dam-based generator in the forest could really help them out, so despite a few flares in human-ape tensions, they send a team, including trigger-happy anti-ape hothead who is supposedly the only guy who knows how to power up the dam, over to ape camp to call a truce.

The team includes a makeshift family in the form of Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Malcolm’s special lady friend Ellie (Keri Russell). They’re all ape-friendly, though they aren’t as well-drawn as James Franco or John Lithgow from the previous film. Caesar has a family of his own, including Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), his teenage son, and a newborn with Cornelia (Judy Greer, motion-capping her part either out of sheer fandom or hoping for some action in a future sequel, as she gets almost nothing here). He’s cautiously open to contact with humans, while his associate Koba (Toby Kebbell), less fond of the human race, glowers.

As human-ape tensions simmer, the plot mechanics take on a sense of inevitability: there will be misunderstandings fraying the ties between the races, and if both Koba and the character played by Gary Oldman seems like they’re itching for a human-ape conflict, well, it’s not going to be a Statue of Liberty-sized twist when it breaks out. But Matt Reeves, taking over for Wyatt, must know that one key to making a Planet of the Apes film is taking things a little bit further than the audience might expect; along with screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, he locates surprising details in a story that, in its broad outlines, telegraphs where it’s going from early on.

These details start with the ape performances, which are remarkable. If the humans are more respectable and sometimes underused supporting players, it doesn’t much matter because Andy Serkis, the other mo-cap actors, and the effects team have created some of the most lifelike CG characters in the history of the medium. So many CG creations look subtly over-animated, as if afraid that any rest will immediately look like a 2D cartoon. Serkis and his team are more comfortable with stillness; Caesar, with his developing rasp of a voice, wields a quiet sort of power.

With all of the CG apes, costs have to be cut somewhere, and Twentieth Century Fox is notorious in some attentive film-geek circles for shooting productions in Vancouver, randomly assigning genre stories foresty environments for budgetary reasons (this is especially prevalent in their comics adaptations: remember how Elektra, the movie about ninja assassins, takes place largely around a log cabin? Or how X-Men: The Last Stand has the bad mutants hiding out in a forest for a stretch?). But like the opening section of last summer’s The Wolverine, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes evocative use of the Fox Forest. Reeves has a painterly eye, and his images of mayhem avoid the disaster-porn money shots of collapsing skyscrapers and (despite an eye-catching poster image) falling bridges. He uses use dark skies, big swaths of fire, and the potentially awesome/ridiculous site of gun-toting apes on horseback to create battle sequences that look like dueling pulp paperback covers. He’s fond of fixing his camera: there are steady, umoving shots of swaths of apes staring down the humans, and in his most bravura moment the camera is bolted the top of an out-of-control tank as it careers through battle (this is becoming his signature move; a similar technique was the star of the most memorable bit of Let Me In, his American remake of Let the Right One In).

In classic Planet of the Apes fashion, real tension lurks beneath the sci-fi coolness of a human-apes battle royale; unlike Rise, there isn’t a clear side to root for so much as characters you hope don’t get caught in the crossfire. Though only the ape characters recur, Dawn is very much a follow-up to Rise. If the first film was about Caesar’s radicalization, the second is about the corruption of that ideal, and whether the drive to fuck things up away from peace is just human nature — or maybe nature in general.

Though the ten-year time jump between movies is promising, I hope future Apes movies will push further forward, both in time and creativity. Rise of the Planet the Apes found such life and detail in tracking Caesar’s early life that it avoided the drudgery of a pointless origin story. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, as strong as it is, nudges the new series more toward prequel territory, the kind of permanent teeing-up that has diluted the otherwise strong new takes on James Bond and Star Trek. If we’re going to follow a long, three-to-five-film road to the Planet of the Apes everyone knows, I hope Reeves and company take the opportunity for some unforeseen detours.