The awkwardly titled Dawn of the Planet of the Apes suffers from the strange phenomenon of the eponymous Simians being more interesting than their human counterparts. Realised in intricate physical detail and state-of-the-art motion capture, the rebellious apes are far more fascinating than the more familiar human resistance. Perhaps this is intentional. Their inner struggle for power and dominance holds something human within it; perhaps in the bloody histories of ancient Roman and Greek societies, consciously alluded to in the ape camp by the name of their leader and moral stalwart – Caesar (Andy Serkis, digital chameleon extraordinaire).
This latest Apes instalment chronicles the developing life of Caesar, whose infant years we saw fostered by James Franco in the previous film in 2011. Franco has disappeared from the picture much like the majority the humankind after the Simian Flu, signposted at the end of Rise, wheedles the human population down to endangered levels. The human contingent in Dawn are spearheaded, in their intermittent moments of unity, by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and his band of eco-scientists. The human race here, backing into a corner like a helpless rat, have a ubiquitous propensity for violence. They are pitted ill-fatedly against a budding Simian society, still trying to iron out moral maxims and an ordered state while attempting to outgrow animalistic tendencies – at least in the case of progressive leader Caesar.
The following negotiations illustrate how both camps are fractured, showcasing how one society may hold entirely contradictory views, and also the trembling house of cards that is peaceful negotiations between opposing ideologies. Dreyfus’ closest comparison in the mirrored ape camp is Koba (Toby Kebbell), a terrifying, scarred individual, whose solution is always violence not peace. Oldman’s character shares only the facial features of that quiet pinnacle of morality Commissioner Jim Gordon – his sentiments here are pure self-preservation. Dawn is therefore a surprisingly anthropological, philosophical film which raises issues of state vs. individual free will and the need for compromise in international (or inter-species) politics.
It would have been easy for Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) to forget about these sophisticated issues and loose the film in multi-million dollar visuals and set-pieces. And make no mistake they are there – gun-toting apes ride on horseback into battle, the streets ablaze; two alpha-males fight it out atop a teetering skyscraper in the urban jungle – but are less memorable than the story. The trick is in making the characters the centre of the action, not the artifice of digital animation. Reeves does not focus on inanimate hunks of churning metal, or alienating structures too huge to contemplate. Dawn is as far away from Transformers as a modern blockbuster can be.
While all this is commendable, there are some issues in the film’s consistency. The apes speak in sign language for most of the first half, (which is a brave step, one that assumes a level of healthy engagement from the audience), but then abruptly switch to mainly spoken word. This transition seemed ham-fisted, and fails to allow for the surrounding apes’ lower intelligence levels compared to that of genetically enhanced and human-schooled Caesar. The film’s marketing also seems intentionally misdirecting – the posters and promotional material feature images of a burning Golden Gate bridge, suggesting a battle for territory from either side. No such set piece exists, indeed the bridge only features in several sequences in establishing shots to show the apes moving towards the human camp. While the film itself isn’t at fault, viewers may be expecting a finale which takes a very different shape from the actual one.
Rise of the Dawn of the Surface Beneath the Planet of the Apes provides intelligent, technically staggering visual fare for midsummer audiences. The pioneering step in motion capture of being able to shoot on location really provides a character focus for the film’s action sequences, which at no point feel elongated or bloated with meaningless, inhumane destruction. It’s a little odd to root for the apes, but they seem to embody ‘personhood’ if not biological humanity as the narrative develops, and the film remains an entertaining, semi-philosophical experience.