This film is gripping as it opens with a sequence charting the decade-long worldwide collapse of humanity from the fallout of Rise of the Planet of the Apes – the Simian flu and the rioting – to the present of the film. Then it’s absolutely breathtaking. For the first 15 minutes we spend time in a world where humans have no part. We watch Caesar and his followers living together in their woodland community in peace. A baby ape is born, and it’s one of the most genuinely touching moments you’ll see all summer. A remarkable aspect is that this is essentially a dialogue-free sequence, save for the sign language the apes use to communicate with each other. Right from the get-go, director Matt Reeves proves his blockbuster chops. I was a big fan of his 2008 monster film Cloverfield, and am in the small camp that finds his 2010 remake Let Me In far superior to the original Swedish Let the Right One In. Most won’t agree with me there, but surely they’ll agree with me here that Reeves is certainly the real deal after watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. This film is a great example of what happens when you give an independent visionary the budget to match his scope and ambition.
There’s a common and valid belief that the films in this series are only as good as what metaphor/analogy they are literalizing on screen. If that’s the case, then this may be the best since the franchise’s beginning as it rises above just that metaphoric hammer and blockbuster antics to become something much more than just a ripe combination of the two. It’s one of the most unique, timely and responsible blockbuster films that a large studio will put out this year.
The plot takes place a decade after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where the Simian flu has killed off almost all of mankind while Caesar and his followers live in the woods outside of San Francisco. A small group of survivors led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) run into Caesar’s tribe, sparking an oncoming confrontation between the apes and the remaining humans.
Matt Reeves casts his film with an expert eye. Jason Clarke’s Malcolm serves as the rock for the audience to bounce themselves off of, which Clarke gives the impression he could do in his sleep. But there’s an extra bit of spark and believability to Clarke that breaks him out of a simple insert-here hero, he’s a hero you really want to believe in. Keri Russell doesn’t get much to do other than encourage and support Malcolm as his second wife Ellie. What she lacks in screen time she more than makes up for in screen presence. She’s a far more talented actress than this role, but she brings much more to it than was previously there. Eventually you get some backstory on her, and Russell carries the emotional baggage of it well. Gary Oldman is one of the most castable actors working. You simply can’t go wrong with him. Here he plays the role of Dreyfus, the leader of the community of humans in San Francisco who is intent on going to war with the apes to defend his home. The role is mostly cardboard cut and one we’re very familiar with, but Oldman brings a certain presence of history to the character that normally wouldn’t exist, and Reeves allows and encourages it. At one point Oldman’s character looks at photos of his family he presumably lost to the epidemic and begins to cry. I almost joined him.
It’s probably too hasty to say this is Andy Serkis’s most accomplished work, but the statement should be considered. Serkis has practically become synonymous with motion-capture performance, having become a godfather of sorts since his iconic portrayal of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series. He was great in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but here he is amazing. In the first he was essentially a plot device, but here he’s a fully fleshed out character. He does wonders when he has a whole film to himself. Some of the most compelling moments come from the father-son struggle with his impressionable son Blue Eyes, and the internal struggle of retaining his position as a leader. He’s balancing all sorts of emotions and motivations throughout the film, conveying them with ease to the audience. It’s one achievement to do this with just your human body, but to do it through the motion capture he does? It’s incredible. Toby Kebbell steps in as Koba as the other highlight of the performances in the ape camp, who like Dreyfus, is intent on going to war to defend his home. It’s effective work by Kebbell, crafting this distinctive character amongst so many other moving parts. If I had one complaint it’s that I wish it wouldn’t have taken me until the credits to realize that an actress as talented as Judy Greer was playing Caesar’s wife Cornelia. She’s hardly in the film, and feels like a missed opportunity to showcase her abilities. One could argue against the quality of motion-capture performance as it hinders so much on the quality of the visual effects. If that’s the case, then Serkis had the best VFX magicians in the business to help him. It’s been a while since visual effects not just looked this real, but felt this real too. It may sound novice to say this, but at several points the apes were so convincing – especially in closeups – that I was convinced they were real. Every single aspect of them on screen was precise, even down to the individual hairs and cuts. You know when you see really convincing blood on an actor and think: “Wow that’s really good makeup”? I had that thought several times about the look of the apes. WETA always seems to outdo themselves, and they continue to do so here.
There is an inevitability hanging over this film – eventually we’re going to get to the timeline of the original Planet of the Apes. Humans are going to lose. Reeves doesn’t allow this to be a crutch though, he uses this sense of foreboding as an accent to every action in the film. What’s interesting as well is that the film is very comfortable with its own pacing. Reeves isn’t afraid to slow things down and take a closer look at the politics at play, and because he does something intriguing happens: You root for both sides. You don’t want to see them go to war. You find much to love in both the apes and the humans. Even the inserted villains for each side (Dreyfus and Koba) you empathize with, understanding they have their valid reasons for what they do, however horrifying.
Where most blockbusters are a plea for sequels, this is a plea for peace. Even the biggest and most explosive action sequence in the film is much more heartbreaking than titillating, and thankfully that is what Reeves was intending. Yes, apes ride horses while firing machine guns in this film – but Reeves somehow makes it feel immediate rather than silly. He handles the scope and the action masterfully, crafting some inventive and memorable sequences. One finds Malcolm running through an invaded building in a stunning one-take sequence, and Reeves produces one of the most jaw-dropping shots I’ll see this year by keeping the camera on a tank revolving throughout a portion of a battle. Reeves can pull off all these gigantic set pieces and sequences without losing the intimate moments. No life feels wasted in this film, every death impacts the audience in a sobering manner. Even Caesar’s most victorious moment comes with a knowing cost and sense of sorrow. The ending is only somewhat happy, and Caesar and Reeves know it. At one point in the film Caesar remarks that although he thought apes were superior to humans, he now realizes apes are just as flawed and more human than he previously thought. It’s a heavy-handed bit of dialogue that could easily make you roll your eyes, but it’s a well-earned bit of dialogue when it happens. Human or ape, we’re all living beings. Unlike the characters in this film, hopefully we’ll realize the universal message sooner than they did.