This article features spoilers for Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
When You Play the Game of Apes, You Either Win or Get Bludgeoned by an Orangutan
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a fun action film that surprised me a few years back. Inevitably, the end of that film does set up for a sequel, and when I finally heard about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Even though the first one was tons of fun, I always feel a little jaded about big blockbuster sequels, no matter what it is. Yet, once again, I found myself pleasantly surprised during the double feature of both films I saw last night.
After the battle on the Golden Gate bridge, where Caesar (Andy Serkis) led his fellow apes to victory and claimed the Redwoods as their home, the ALZ-113 virus, designed by Caesar’s “father”, Will Rodman, begins spreading like wildfire throughout the world, killing any human it comes into contact with. Years pass, and the human population of planet dwindles to a few pockets of barely functioning civilizations. Meanwhile the apes only grow more intelligent with each day, as Caesar provides a safe haven for all apes in his newly constructed wooden fortress. Humanity, now pushed to the breaking point, begins imploding as wanton violence claims the lives of millions more. Several more years pass, and the apes have all but forgotten what it was like to be under the boot of the humans. Only three apes truly remember the harsh cages and abuse, Caesar, Koba (Toby Kebbell), and Maurice (Karin Konoval). After two years of no human contact at all, the apes are taken by surprise when a small band of human survivors discovers their home. After a brief altercation, Ceasar allows the humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), to return to their home, but he also sends Koba on a secret reconnaissance mission to discover how the humans have survived. Koba follows Malcom to San Francisco, where he discovers that humans have become immune to the virus and have begun rebuilding their civilization.
Meanwhile, Malcolm informs the survivors’ leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) of his discovery. Dreyfus, torn apart by paranoia and the loss of his family in the outbreak/war, sees the apes as little more than simple, violent animals who will eventually pose a threat to him and his people. Malcolm urges Dreyfus to give him some time to treat with the apes so that he can get a hydroelectric dam near the apes’ fortress in working order. Dreyfus reluctantly agrees, and Malcolm and a small team meet with Caesar and convince him of their plight. Things are obviously unstable, with both humans and apes lightly tiptoeing around each other. However, some apes, and humans, begin to believe that the only way to secure their safety is to eliminate the other species. Koba, the foremost voice calling for war amongst the apes, begins to see Caesar as weak and pandering, and hatches a plot to secure the throne for himself, and kill all the humans.
Sadly, there are a few weak spots in this film. Sometimes, especially with Koba’s plotline, you’ll find yourself guessing what will happen and, later, being absolutely correct. The film does have some trouble building certain elements up without giving too much away to the viewer. These instances aren’t enough to spoil the film, but it will be enough to crawl under your skin and pull you out of the moment. In other moments, you’ll have a hard time keeping up with some of the apes as 90% of them look the same. Only Koba, Maurice, Caesar, and Caesar’s queen (played by Cheryl/Carol… I mean Cherlene… I mean Judy Greer) and sons are visually distinct, making some scenes with other apes into a wild guessing game. Early on, an ape is severely injured and at the time I thought it was Caesar’s son, until a few moments later it was revealed to be one of Rocket’s sons. Alongside some truly awfully timed music, these few minor annoyances were just enough to leave a hint of a bad taste.
Still, this film does enough things right, and improves on several weaknesses of the original, to become a great summer blockbuster. My biggest problem with Rise, was how weak the human side of the story was. That was more than made up for by Caesar, but it was still irritating. In this film however, writers Jaffa, and Silver, have clearly learned from their mistakes, and enlisted the aid of a third writer to better flesh out their vision. Malcolm and his small family, composed of his teenage son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell), are just as easy to watch and enjoy as Caesar is in both films. The addition if this refined human story, coupled with competent performances, adds a whole new layer of complexity and emotion to what is basically a movie about monkeys that ride horses and dual wield chain guns. These characters are a far cry from the purely evil/ purely good cutouts from the original, although, Malcolm’s character is certainly equivalent to James Franco’s Rodman in terms of goodie-two-shoes-ness. Gary Oldman, as ever, is powerful and plays his conflicted and disturbed character with grace. Again, Dreyfus isn’t just a total asshole, like Brian Cox and his hillbilly moron sons in the original, he’s an actual human with motivations.
Once again again, the real stars are the apes, with Koba, Maurice, and Caesar taking center stage. Andy Serkis is one phenomenally gifted individual, as he brings the now battle hardened and noble Caesar to life. Serkis clearly understands the character like none other, as emotional beats from the first film, that turned out to be some of the best moments in that film, return and Caesar really begins to feel like a fully fleshed out character that could carry this franchise for at least another two films. As for Koba, I remember seeing him in the first film for the first time and thinking that he would make a badass villain. Not only was he physically intimidating, with a scar that dominates half of his face, but he was expertly played by Toby Kebbell as a remorseless, vengeful warrior, subjected to years and years of controlled torture in laboratories the world over. In this film he finally becomes king bastard, which honestly, was extremely satisfying. Maurice is ever the old guru type (think a big orange Yoda), and he even gets some spoken lines which come at the breaking point in the plot and add a notch to the growing tensions spectacularly.
This is the best blockbuster I’ve seen this summer since X-Men. If you’re looking for a damn good time at the picture shows, don’t waste your time spending money on, thinking of, or even mentioning that godawful pile of trash that Michael Bay shat out (y’know the one I mean…), instead check out a film that’s actually a film and will entertain you instead of boring you to tears.