In Rupert Wyatt’s brilliant first film of the series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it was immediately clear that the filmmakers were doing two things to up the ante. 1) they brought to life unrivaled visual effects with the help of performance capture and Andy Serkis. And 2) they tried to hew as closely to plausible science as they could. That the first film takes care to insist “they aren’t monkeys, they’re apes” tells you that they intended to make a film about primates with thoughtful respect. Now, with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves holds true to the two ideals from the first film but expands the emotional development of the visually-enhanced characters, or if you prefer, the apes.
Finally this year, animal rights activists have helped to free the chimps from lab research, a long hard fight that has rendered many of those chimps borderline psychotic. Three animals that we know of can recognize themselves in the mirror — elephants, dolphins and chimps. Their intelligence is already way beyond what we previously imagined for them, even if it doesn’t reach the medically-elevated heights it does in these two Apes films. They get it right, though, about lab chimps in both films and hold up a mirror to humans to show us what we have become, who we still are, and the fate we may ultimately deserve.
What makes both Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes so delicious is that they get it so right. If they deviated in any way from the expected trajectory of what might happen if apes were given a drug to evolve their already advanced intelligence, these would just nothing more than your ordinary everyday animal revenge sci-fi films. But as such, they drift away from fantasy and into the realm of magical realism. There isn’t a moment in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes where you remember you’re watching computer-generated special effects. We see the apes as real characters — with an array of facial expressions, moods, emotions that rise and fall in accord with what happens around them and with whom they encounter.
We meet up with Caesar in the forest he now calls home — above the hills of the now ravaged San Francisco. Most of the human population has been wiped out by the science-gone-wrong virus but there are still clusters of survivors left. The apes, though, they don’t need anything except organization, hunting skills (spears) and each other to survive. Humans, as is pointed out in the film, need a lot more than that.
Like Rise, Dawn is at its best when we’re with the apes. The human stories simply can’t compete. Animals rule in these films in all ways. We care about them more. We’re more fascinated by them and every time they do anything it enthralls us — how could human actors compete? That brings us back to the question of what is Caesar? He asks James Franco that question in the first film and the question remains. Who is he? What is he?
More importantly, what is this new breed of film character we have yet to completely reconcile ourselves with? It isn’t pure human acting. It isn’t pure animation. It is something in between — caught in the evolution of film and visual effects that is clearly beginning to dominate. The film represents a species that is the same thing — technologically-enhanced creations who threatens to obliterate what came before. And so we must start to think about performance capture. What is it? Where will it take us? Where do we want it to take us?
In both films, music is used to build tension, though the first film probably had a better rhythm overall with its use of music to introduce to us something we have never seen before. Apes organizing. Apes thinking. Apes attacking. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, they have a better idea of who they are. They have thought out who they want to be — what they’re about. They don’t believe in guns. They don’t want to kill. Well, as long as they’re led by a peaceful leader that’s true. They are vulnerable to a corrupt leader, who will turn their minds around and make them much more violent than they are under Caesar.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is by far the best film of 2014 so far (of those films released. I’m not counting films I saw in Cannes) and will likely end the year as one of the very best because there will be nothing else like it. Its visual effects are on another level than anything we’ve ever seen before and thus, will likely do battle with Interstellar for that prize. But without seeing Nolan’s film, it’s hard to imagine any other effects-heavy film topping Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
The film’s heart and soul is Caesar — a collaborative performance capture of Andy Serkis and the effects team working together to create someone we very much recognize. Like Gollum, of course, Caesar feels like someone we know. He manages to have charisma and watchability, even over the other apes. How on earth did they manage that?
The conflict in Dawn doesn’t seem as urgent as it did in Rise — the corruption here comes from within. But what it lacks in overall suspense it makes up for in awesome, mind-blowing action sequences of apes flying through the air, climbing towers, wielding guns, driving tanks. And even still, none of those things can compete with the quiet moments of love and reflection between the apes. If chimps are violent against one another in the wild, enhanced intelligence here has given them better organization skills to combat that erratic behavior. That is, until it doesn’t.
It is ironic that we sit in witness to this film as humans rooting against ourselves, rooting for the apes to survive and win. They’re better than us and we know it. As our own culture evolves we’re beginning to recognize how exceptional other mammals are. Sooner or later we will become fully-evolved to the point where we stop doing terrible things to them for our own benefit. For those of us who are tortured by this every day, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and its predecessor, as like a psychic massage — a way out of the burden of being part of a species that really doesn’t, on the whole, make things better for animals. Maybe one day we will evolve like the apes in this film do. Maybe we will one day be better than we are now. And then maybe they can forgive us.