Of all the cheesy canons of film history to reboot and retool for the 21st century, who would have ever thought that “Planet of the Apes” would become one of the best? Remember, the 1968 original is where we get the classic Charlton Heston line "Take your stinking paws off of me, you damned dirty ape." In 2001, Tim Burton attempted to revive the series, but he did a remake of the original starring Heston and Roddy McDowall. Burton’s stars? Mark Wahlberg and Tim Roth are pretty even replacements for the stars of the original. It wasn’t that successful for two reasons. 1. It was a remake of the cheesy original using slightly better special effects. 2. It didn’t have Andy Serkis in a motion capture suit.
In 2011, Fox decided to reboot the series with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” starring James Franco as a scientist looking for a cure for Alzheimer’s to help cure his father (John Lithgow). He brings Caesar (Andy Serkis), one of the test apes at the lab, home and they form a very unique bond as Caesar learns to communicate with sign language and through speech. Then everything goes wrong. It was an engaging blockbuster made even better by Serkis’ performance.
Now, three years later, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” arrives at the multiplex.
Directed by Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”, “Let Me In”), the story picks up ten years later. The human race has been decimated by the 'Simian Flu' and the apes have been multiplying, teaching themselves how to communicate, and multiplying. A colony of humans has holed up in the Ferry Building in run-down, overgrown San Francisco. A group of them venture into the forest and Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who has wandered ahead, is surprised by a group of apes. He shoots Ash, the son of Koba (Toby Kebbell, “The Escape Artist) and starts a confrontation. Caesar runs to the sight and confronts the rest of the humans led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke, “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Lawless”, “The Great Gatsby”) and they reach an uneasy truce. When the humans return to the city, their leader, Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman) is very worried about a possible attack. But Malcom talks them out of any action and asks them to let him travel back and talk to the apes about letting them get a power station at a dam running again. Their power supply is running out, so this new generator could mean their survival. Each group has a voice of dissent causing problems; Koba doesn’t share Caesar’s tolerance for humans, he was tested on and scarred by humans, but Caesar is their leader, so he acquiesces, for a while. Dreyfus doesn’t share Malcom’s trust for the apes and would prefer to wipe them out. But he allows Malcolm to try things his way. Both are working towards conflict as their more level-headed counterparts try to resolve their differences.
Computer-generated-imagery (or CGI) has taken over pretty much every film you might see at the multiplex. This advancement allows filmmakers to create new worlds or to recreate worlds of the past. Anything someone can imagine can now be created for a film. The key is how well it is created. In so many films, CGI is used to create a monster, a dragon or scary creature, something meant to shock and scare us near the end of a film. CGI works less well when it is used for the majority of the film, creating landscapes, buildings, characters, special effects. Our eyes need something real to focus on, to trick us into believing the CGI is real. If everything is created artificially, something usually falters and our eye finds it. Unless the work is really, really good.
In “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, the work is really, really good. Every ape character, and there are many, is created by an actor in a motion capture suit. They basically act the role wearing motion capture suits, in front of a camera. The special effects people take that footage and combine it with CGI, the animation matching various points on the suits to create more realistic characters. In the last few years, this technology has advanced to help create some truly remarkable creations in some really memorable films.
And pretty much all of these characters are played by Andy Serkis. The Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “King Kong”, a character in the upcoming “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, a character in the upcoming “Star Wars” film. Let’s face it. The Gollum is the character everyone remembers and quotes. “King Kong” doesn't work unless we believe in the performance of a giant ape. All of these are accomplished by Andy Serkis and a bunch of special effects geeks. In “Rise” and now “Dawn”, he makes Caesar come alive, he makes him a real, viable character in these narratives. It really feels like they trained a real ape and gave him a script. But of course that didn’t happen. One of the advances made in this technology is they are able to capture facial movements, allowing the actors to add this to their performance, removing another layer of artificiality, giving their characters a higher degree of authenticity. Serkis does an amazing job bringing Caesar to life. We see and feel every emotion the ape feels, every interaction he has with his fellow apes and with the humans, he seems real. He is Caesar.
As the head of the pack, Caesar has a lot to contend with- humans, who are pretty much distrusted by all apes, dissent within the pack, family sickness. But he can never show weakness and that is the first thing you realize about Caesar; he is strong, very strong. But his mind is always working. If he trusts Malcolm, will Koba and the others perceive this as a weakness and try to take over? If he doesn’t show any kindness to the humans, will they immediately attack? Caesar seems to consider every action he and his pack make, weighing whether it will lead them closer to an all-out conflict with the humans. He doesn’t seem to want war and tries to do everything he can to prevent it.
It is really an extraordinary performance. It is because of Serkis’ work we are so willing to accept this world created by director Reeves and all of his technicians. And Serkis is receiving a lot of attention for his work in this capacity, he seems to be the innovator, the Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Ray Harryhausen, or James Cameron of this new technology.
But Serkis is not the only actor playing an ape. Toby Krebbel (a very bad human being in “The Escape Artist”) plays Koba, the ape who constantly challenges Caesar. He is a good villain and the performance is worthy of any not enhanced by CGI. Judy Greer plays Caesar’s wife Cornelia. And other actors play different apes in the group, some of whom support Caesar, some don’t.
The actors playing human roles are good, but each is a little flat, a little one-dimensional. Malcolm, as played by Jason Clarke, is the good guy. He only wants to work out a deal with the apes so they can get to the dam and get the power plant running. He is only ever good or caring. Given what he has gone through in the last decade, you might expect a least a glimmer of darkness. Keri Russell plays Ellie, a former doctor who now lives with Malcom and his son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee, “The Road”). Kirk Acevedo plays Carver, who basically starts all of the confrontations because he is one of those ‘shoot first, figure things out later’ types. Gary Oldman plays Dreyfus who is meant to be the human version of Caesar. While he is less interested in maintaining the peace, you can see that he is frightened by these genetically evolved apes and wants to try to exert the human’s perceived superiority with the cache of firearms they control. Oldman is good, but he doesn't convey the complexity of Serkis' ape counterpart.
And that is really astonishing. The actors playing humans are less effective than the work from the actors who have to deal with a bunch of technical restrictions and gadgetry. There was a time, very recently, when that would not have been the case and I would be criticizing the work of the CGI characters for not being human enough.
There are some moments of interaction between apes and humans, both good and bad. An orangutan named Maurice is the teacher to the younger apes. At one point, he ventures to the human’s campsite and shares a moment with Alexander. Later, Koba and two of his followers, discover the humans testing a cache of weapons at Ft. Point. Malcolm and Ellie venture into the ape compound and when Ellie realizes Cornelia is sick she offers to help with some medicine.
Each of these films is being used to set-up the next. The original series ran for five films and spawned a television series and then a series of television movies. “Dawn” ends with a brief scene setting up the next film. In “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, there is a brief shot of a news program following the launch of the Icarus. This is the name of the ship Charlton Heston’s character is on when it lands on the “Planet of the Apes”. I would guess that there are probably two more films planned before the Icarus returns to Earth. They are already floating internet stories about the return of the Icarus, but it seems that the set-up of the next film would be before this spaceship returns to Earth.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is an example of what all the other filmmakers want to achieve when they make these remakes and reboots. A film that makes people forget about the original because it is so darned good.