Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, USA 1968) was a naked political allegory, like much of what Rod Serling wrote. As such, it was a creature of its time even more than most films. However, its basic plot is easily adaptable to making all kinds of points–it is, after all, not at all dissimilar from the zombie apocalypse plots that permeate the industry at this point. That’s what made it so rife for remaking, including the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, USA 2011), to which this film is a sequel.
Luckily for viewers, director Matt Reeves and screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver don’t run away from the political themes that defined Schaffner’s original film–indeed, they make the political themes of the film obvious. American flags are displayed prominently (especially for a climactic moment when a dastardly ape stands on a giant flagpole to shout abuse at imprisoned humans), the characters openly discuss some of them, and no one could ever fail to notice the obvious political ramifications of including blowing up a skyscraper that is decorated with an American flag as a major story point. The non-human apes and humans are clearly symbols representing the (for lack of a better term) Middle Eastern Muslim world and the United States.
The story of the film is that of a group of humans, some of the few remaining on a planet that has long since been overtaken by non-human apes, who attempt an uneasy truce with a band of those non-human apes. Both groups are filled with radical elements who don’t want peace with their neighbors, causing internal strife that leads to external strife. Chaos ensues, eventually erupting in a pair of attempted massacres that leave both sides essentially destroyed.
Somewhat interestingly, it’s damn near impossible to pin down whether the non-human apes are the Muslims or the US, because the point of the film is a bit facile: There are extremists in every given group, and judging the entire group based on those extremists leads to dangerous miscommunication. If you want to broaden the point a bit (which is fair), it’s that both sets of people are the same–as Caesar says, “I see how much we are alike.”
An unfortunate problem for this film is that it is essentially a cartoon, like most current big budget films. It opens with a sequence that is a mixture of animation and newsreel footage that is a very effective montage that quickly explains the world as it exists as our story begins, but it unfortunately doesn’t really get any more real. Further, Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin display a shocking lack of visual imagination. The colors, the composition, the use of light and shadow, etc. are all so standard issue that they draw no attention whatsoever.
However, to its credit, the animation of the non-human apes is quite excellent–much better than most of the CGI going on in the film world. And for a film whose 3D effects are constantly (wrongly) being praised, it actually avoids the idiotic “make every chase go toward the camera” with which most 3D films seem to be infatuated.
I know that it is in vogue to praise every bit of Andy Serkis motion capture work as though it is a vintage Al Pacino performance. However, I have never known how to separate Serkis’s own work from the technology and artisans involved in bringing it to life. Caesar is certainly an achievement of some kind, though his perpetual snarling face is slightly over the top, but I have no idea where that credit should go.
Meanwhile, the other acting is good for what it is, but no one really has much of a part to play. Kodi Smit-McPhee, once so excellent in the thoroughly disappointing The Road (John Hillcoat, USA 2009), was the lone standout in a small role, evincing a depth and realism that no one else touches. Gary Oldman achieved something he has never achieved for me before: I could understand everything he said for the entire film, even though his accent slipped a few times. Still, there are no noticeably weak performances, which is something.
Overall, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is fine for what it is. It’s a somewhat simplistic cartoon political allegory that unfortunately does not know how to make its point visually, but the care and thought put into the writing is enough to carry the film to being better than the usual summer fare. Much like The Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, USA/Australia 2014) earlier this summer, it doesn’t set its sights all that high (though a bit higher than that film’s), but it mostly reaches what it aims for. You can’t expect that much more out of a Planet of the Apes film.
- “It was a talking ape!” So are you, moron!
- The non-human apes are apparently able to communicate effectively and efficiently by non-verbal means, so why do they at random times just decide to speak? And after the humans are “eradicated,” why wouldn’t they just permanently return to however they communicated before they learned human language?
- How is this the “dawn” of the planet of the apes? It seems like it’s more like the downfall of the planet of the apes.
- Why is Gary Oldman in every film? Does he make like 200 a year?
- Love that “The Weight” is the song that survives the Simian Holocaust. Carmen and the Devil walking side by side . . .
- 3D still doesn’t add anything. I hate 3D.