Synopsis: In the wake of a disaster that changed the world, the growing and genetically evolving apes find themselves at a critical point with the human race.
As a massive fan of the original series of Planet of the Apes movies I was giddy with excitement in 2001 when master of the accessible weird, Tim Burton, decided to “reboot” the franchise. Unfortunately rather than the modern day version of POTA we wanted, what we got was a kicking more than a reboot. Marky Mark in space with a scenery chewing Tim Roth and awful, awful ending that looked like it set itself up for a sequel that THANK GOD NO ONE WANTED. It was with more than a little trepidation then that I walked into 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (forever now typed as ROTPOTA for the sake of word space and my tender digits). Within 20 minutes or so I knew I was in for a treat. It was not just a reboot, it was a whole new origin story. The story of the genesis ape, Caesar, and how he came to mark the start of a polar shift in our planetary evolution. Treating the franchise lore with the respect it deserved, ROTPOTA had the heart and humanity in its apes that the 2001 misstep could only have wished for. Much of that was through advancements in motion capture technology meaning that resident Hollywood ape impersonator Andy Serkis could deliver an emotionally nuanced performance through the medium of a pixellated monkey that 90% of Hollywood’s acting community would struggle to deliver with their actual human faces.
If you haven’t seen the end of ROTPOTA then it’s difficult to talk about DOTPOTA without spoiling the first installment. That said, if you’re planning on reading a review of a sequel to a film you haven’t yet seen then I am not going to bother walking on eggshells.
The end of ROTPOTA set up two key events: the demise of humanity through a man-made flu virus; and the fleeing of a relatively small but very smart apes into the San Francisco Redwood Park north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Set 10 years on from the pandemic flu virus seen at the end of ROTPOTA that has since wiped out most of humanity, Caesar and his growing colony of every increasingly intelligent simians now live a peaceful existence of hunting and monkey sex in their monkey city on the side of a rather monkey heavy mountain. It’s monkey heaven. Unbeknown to them, outside of their utopia monkey bubble back in the ruins of San Francisco a group of virus resistant humans are beginning to thrive again. When a group of humans, led by engineer Malcolm (Jason Clarke), encounter the ape colony on their way to an old hydo-electric dam in a bid to restore power to San Francisco, things go very wrong very quickly. While not exactly thrilled by the presence of the humans in their colony, Caesar, the level headed and pragmatic demigod of the apes, sees the long term cost of war on the development of the apes community if they fight them. He recognises they are at a crucial point in their social progression and to fight to early could easily lead to their extinction. His trusted General and loyal servant Koba (Toby Kebbell), scarred from his traumatic experiences at the hands of scientists before his liberation, sees a chance for revenge. Having tasted blood in their initial rebellion he is desperate to wipe out the humans once and for all. In an almost exact mirror Malcolm finds himself fighting his best friend and colony co-founder Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) on the idea of going to war with the apes.
It’s in the mirroring of the two alpha characters that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes asks it’s most interesting questions, and continues the great traditions of the franchise being a platform for exploring some of the big questions about the inevitability of greed, murder, envy and power. By creating almost carbon copy protagonists and antagonists on both sides, writers Matt Bomback and Rick Jaffa make some interesting, if somewhat blunt, points about power corrupting. It is no surprise that in Koba, Bomback and Jaffa created a hairy Brutus for their simian Caesar. There is also no doubting that the recent Arab Spring had an impact on both with a heavy stench of revolution hanging over the film from the start.
Like many sequels this is also much darker in both tone and lighting than ROTPOTA, reflecting the more desperate times that all involved find themselves in. There is palpable tension from the outset and the action set pieces in DOTPOTA, in particular during the last third, are longer and more intense than the stunning Golden Gate Bridge scenes at the end of its predecessor. There is also no denying the ambitions of Bomback, Jaffa and director Matt Reeves in wanting to make this more about the simians than the humans. The majority of the emotional scenes involve Caesar, his son Blue Eyes, Koba and Caesar’s wife who is sick from childbirth. It is a remarkable feat of writing and immersive CGI that you very quickly find yourself oblivious to the fact that the family and social dynamics unfolding are by signing monkeys rather than talking people. The only criticism, and it is ultimately a small one, is that in pursuit of developing the central male relationships the female characters are largely put to one side, rolled out to be an occasional voice of concern or do something a little bit motherly. Which is a shame given how strong the rest of the writing is in comparison.
That said, it is a minor criticism in what is ultimately a fantastic technical achievement and an immersive middle episode in what will at least be a three-part franchise. I won’t get into waxing lyrical about the technical side DOTPOTA other than to say it is absolutely stunning and a terryfying insight into the future of live action/CGI mo-cap mashups. I would highly recommend seeking out some of the articles floting around about the groundbreaking work that went into doing open air motion capture as well as retrorendering the 3D. Stunning.
Conclusion: A fine follow up to one of the most critically succesful classic franchise reboots of recent years. Bring on the next one.
Cast: Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Andy Serkis, Keri Russel