20th Century Fox/Chernin Ent./TSG Ent. (2014) 130 min. PG-13
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver; inspired by Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle
Cinematography: Michael Seresin; Editing: William Hoy & Stan Salfas
Production Design: James Chinlund; Set Decoration: Amanda Moss Serino; Costumes: Melissa Bruning; Score: Michael Giacchino
Stars: Andy Serkis (Caesar), Jason Clarke (Malcolm), Gary Oldman (Dreyfuss), Keri Russell (Ellie), Toby Kebbell (Koba), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Alexander), Kirk Acevedo (Carver), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Nick Thurston (Blue Eyes), Terry Notary (Rocket), Doc Shaw (Ash)
Cinema’s umpteenth Planet of the Apes film isn’t a great movie, but it allows a director brand new to the franchise to take a great crack at interpreting the theme. In Matt Reeves’ unusually sensitive hands, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes manages to be unaccountably moving at times, even while we’re laughing at ourselves for being so easily taken in and emotionally manipulated. It should be impossible to take these Ape films seriously on any level other than silly camp but the last two titles have both managed to be deeply affecting. They’re too excessively well-made to brush off lightly and Reeves shows respect for his talking monkeys, rather than approaching them with mockery. True, the concept demands some getting used to. Initially it seems like something Michael Crichton might have conceived, like Congo or maybe even Konga.
Set in a familiar world viewers were already accustomed to, Rise of the Planet of the Apes began before conscious thought first seeped into the skulls of the great apes, allowing us to gradually acclimatize ourselves to the novel idea. But after a brief recap on how the world’s gone to hell, with snippets and sound bites from real world leaders to lend authenticity to proceedings, Dawn drops us right into the thick of things without so much as a by your leave. The scene as it’s laid out for us could be set in a post-nuclear age, and with their impressive new vocabulary these apes may well be mutant byproducts of some apocalyptic aftermath. It takes a minute for viewers to work their way into this film, but once they get past the silliness of the basic concept, it’s not hard to accept these simians as people in human terms, with emotions and motivations, desires and individual personalities.
The primitive little settlement these escaped test subjects have constructed, a sprawling gorilla nest built into the bramble bushes of hillsides and the low-hanging limbs of trees recalls the Ewok village from Return of the Jedi and when one chimp takes the leading lady by the hand guiding her over the grounds it brings back gilded memories of Cheetah and Tarzan from the old MGM days. Michael Seresin’s cinematography makes the balmy climes of the Pacific Northwest seem like equatorial Africa, the apes leaping from one strategically placed branch to another, visually evoking Gorillas in the Mist and Greystoke, movies which also approached their similar simian subject matter with an alarming degree of dead seriousness. The apes have recreated their own primitive jungle from memory right in the heart of California and it’s more than slightly disconcerting seeing them anachronistically move across North American terrain, having made themselves right to home amid towering redwoods, rocky riverbeds and the old-growth, moss covered forest floors carpeted with ancient flora and fauna.
During the final confrontation set in the city, the transplanted apes swing from the conveniently dangling chains of a construction tower as though they were vines and swarm like ants over the steel girders. Silently scaling the scaffolding like trees, they’re practically hanging from the rafters, making this mockup of Kong’s ascent up the Empire State Building seem like the most fantastic jungle gym ever invented for a yard monkey’s amusement. When tame animals run off into the woods they usually go feral, reverting back to their animal instincts for survival. With these apes it’s the exact opposite however as they’re shown to have become even more civilized away from corrupting human contact. Wanting to be left alone to peacefully co-exist in their isolated environ, they’ve developed their own private sign language, linking them to Koko, the gorilla likewise taught to ‘speak’ through a rudimentary form of signing.
The apes of Dawn regard themselves as morally superior to the sort of primates that captured, caged, enslaved and experimented on them and to prove the point have chiseled their own version of the ten commandments on a sloping stone face that the wise old orangutan Maurice uses like a blackboard to school the younger generation. It’s an amusing allusion in a movie predicated on notions of Darwinian evolution rather than creationism. When Malcolm, the first human brought before them, arrives adorned with a safari fedora as though he planned on bagging big game in darkest Africa, we’re almost inclined to swallow this swill about innate simian superiority. The part has been shrewdly cast with Jason Clarke, probably still best known for playing the conflicted, chief torturer in Zero Dark Thirty. Viewers’ association of him with that role allows Clarke to parlay elements of it into his characterization here, so that we can understand the apes’ deeply ingrained mistrust and hatred of humans, knowing even good men like him have it in them to willingly inflict pain.
The simian flu caused by the ALZ-113 virus from the first film is like a terminal cross between Spanish influenza, AIDS and the bird/swine flu and the disease has decimated the world’s human population. Only a straggling handful of immune survivalists are left holed up outside what used to be San Francisco but now seems like the ruins of an ancient Aztec empire reclaimed by the jungle and overrun with creeping vines. The outpost where the inhabitants mingle and conduct business is like a bustling marketplace bazar, a social hub for this newly augmented society. The remnants of humanity hate and fear apes for having laid waste their number, this flu the first salvo in their ongoing war, same way the religious right ‘blamed’ AIDS, which was also conjectured to have originally been transmitted from monkeys, on the gay lifestyle. The simians are blamed for the flu that was actually created by human scientists experimenting on them in a lab.
For their part, the apes believe, not unreasonably, that man’s own suicidal nuclear policies and warlike impulses are what have led them to the edge of extinction, just as they had driven so many other animals onto the endangered species list over the years, through overhunting and deforestation. It was man’s own glorified view of himself as the highest order of life on the planet despite cavalierly destroying its environment, pride going before his fall, which served to finish them off when widespread pandemic reverted the species back to a state of animalistic self-interest. The simian flu only served as a catalyst to bring out his inner beast. We’re being lectured concerning the moral superiority of the animal kingdom as if the essence of tribal dynamics were not also predicated on the territorial imperative, with rival males warring with one another over mating rights and grazing lands. When the valid point is raised in the film that apes mark their territory and fight over it too, the idea is (none too convincingly) mollified by the codicil that “we’re brothers.” Yet while gorilla, chimp and orangutan are shown living in perfect harmony, there’s no indication that they feel any affinity for their fellow primate despite the naked human ape being equally close kin, instead willingly going to war to keep him off their happy hunting grounds.
In essence, Dawn of the Apes is not unlike Orwell’s Animal Farm, only with apes having revolted and taken over the barnyard. And curiously no attempt is made to show them trying to raise the dignity of the other base animals man had likewise mistreated as beasts of burden. To the contrary, these apes are shown to have corralled and bridled horses for riding and stalk helpless deer as ruthlessly as human hunters ever did. They’re even nonplussed when they kill the bear that attacks them. Rather than rejecting man’s elevation of himself to the top of the food chain by devising a more balanced approach to living at one with nature, these apes who were once primarily vegetarian seem to be simply supplanting humans as alpha predator.
Though I remember once sitting through a week long marathon of the original Ape movies on network TV as a child, it’s been a while since I viewed the original in its entirety. Still, this reboot seems to take its main inspiration from all the parts Planet of the Apes left out, inspired more by the sequels Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes which laid down the basic mythology leading up to the original. We get to see how the earth actually got to the ape-run totalitarian state Charlton Heston found it in.
Adapted from Pierre Boulle’s novel (though the movies have, at this late stage, assumed a life all their own), the original Planet of the Apes was released in 1968, the same year as Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and comes across today like a cheeky satire of suppressed white fears of the changes being wrought in society at the time by the Civil Rights Movement. The outraged indignity of the conservative astronaut who crash landed on a world in which his own ‘superior’ race had been enslaved by more highly advanced apes, spoke to a generation living in secret fear that society was headed in that same general direction. The humor derived from the unspoken dread of metaphorical black empowerment, as implied by this radical ‘racial’ role reversal.
In an amusing twist, when words unexpectedly spill out of the apes’ mouths in Dawn, everyone is as dumbstruck as they were in the original film, when an apoplectic Heston, outraged at being so unceremoniously pawed, blurted out his classic howler “Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape.” The movie makes it seem as though the power of speech, fluent mastery of the Queen’s English was the primary indication of superior mental capacity. The apes’ halting, pidgin English is meant to link them to indigenous primitive tribes who had Western culture imposed upon them when their lands were invaded and stripped of resources following First Contact, much as the interlopers here encroach upon the ape’s sanctuary in the interest of repairing the dilapidated hydroelectric dam that could power their city.
When the apes make their first appearance, the tribal piercings and war paint make them appear as if they were wearing African ceremonial masks. The hair has receded from an older Caesar’s face and the male pattern baldness gives him the foreboding appearance of a death’s head skull to intimidate all enemies. The gashes on their bodies simulating rib cages make the apes appear to be starving but instead they display ruthlessly efficient pack hunting practices as we observe them working in concert to bring down a deer. When they overrun the human’s outpost the scene plays out like some Indian war party in an old Western, with the apes carrying off captives slung over their shoulder gorilla fashion and setting fire to the site. The injudicious whites who provide the scheming Koba with both firearms and firewater believing apes to be as harmless as children, find out different when he turns their own weapons against them. Malcolm is meant to be the one paleface the apes trust enough to accept into their ranks, and when he arrives at their simian city, he’s carried before their leader like John Smith in The New World, another movie about culture clash caused by European encroachment into foreign lands. When Caesar pulls himself up to his full height with all the empirical dignity his name commands, it’s upright on two legs, indication that his species bows before mankind no longer, as Malcolm must when forced by Caesar’s strong-arm gorilla guards to one knee before him.
Having sharpened animal bones into crude weapons, when the apes declare jihad on humanity they’re initially depicted as primitive spear chuckers who can’t hope to stand against the full force of modern man’s advanced technologies, but without the hydroelectric power the dam promised to provide, man himself is teetering on the edge of extinction, in danger of sliding back into the self-same primitive state of these primates, at which point the apes can’t help but win out with their natural advantages, superior arm reach, agility, brute strength and now a mental facility equal to our own.
It’s only when the ape troops revert back to their nascent simian skills after finding their weapons useless in the face of superior firepower that the tide of battle swings in their favor. As Jon Eyez’s Foster remarks, what makes the apes most dangerous is that unlike man, they don’t need lights, power, electricity to stay on top. On the other hand, the human reliance on machine-tooled technology will prove their downfall. The fact that it serves as our Achilles heel is brought home when power temporarily restores that convenience store nearly reclaimed by the forest, lighting it up with the neon signs and music that have been so sorely missed heretofore. Without power, once reverted back to the wild without tooth or claw to defend themselves, humans are placed at a distinct disadvantage, nearly as helpless as the deer glimpsed near the beginning.
We seem to be watching rapid aged evolution from ape to Neanderthal and no telling to what higher stage in the subsequent sequels, while simultaneously observing decimated humanity slip back into a primordial state of solipsism. It’s man who is seen receding into the darkness of his unenlightened past, Malcolm withdrawing into the inky shadows like Paul Muni at the end of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, while the sun dawns on a new age of enlightenment presided over by his ape ancestors. The light bulb has definitely gone off in the monkeys’ minds and the movie’s title might just as well be referring to the ‘dawning’ of their sentient consciousness. In essence it’s an allusion to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dawn of Man,’ cinema’s quintessential treatise on human evolution in 2001: A Space Odyssey, released the same year as the original Planet of the Apes. Dawn, which opens with both primate populations at roughly the same developmental stage in their evolution, humanity having slipped back about as far as simians have advanced, ends up with the scales having tipped definitively in the apes’ favor. This is devolution, or at the very least evolution in reverse, a Darwinian survival of the fittest. With primates positioned well on their way to taking over the planet, humanity is being humbled for its hubris, imperious man having lorded it over the apes rather than acknowledging his affinity with them, their mutual descent from the same family tree. But the movie never makes it quite clear that while humans and apes evolved from the same common ancestor they branched off in two completely different directions not one unbroken line of descent. Instead, the way Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have structured their narrative, the apes seem to be evolving along the same general path toward humanity rather than an entirely different route altogether. They’re presented as carbon copies of mankind which according to the movie’s own way of thinking, does the species a disservice.
Part of the picture’s fascination lies in the primal horror of seeing these primates so expertly aping man. They seem creepily human because they look so much more like us on two legs. With their stealthy, stunted wobble they’re eerily akin, so bowlegged they might have been born in the saddle. When the well-drilled ape army arrives en mass at the gates of the barricaded outpost to show the strength of their numbers, the leaders on horseback possess all the imposing majesty of military brass. But painting primates in such anthropomorphic terms would seem to defeat the main point the movie makes concerning how morally superior apes are meant to be specifically because they are so unlike us. Dawn elicits sympathy by playing off the audience’s affection for characters that seem less like animals and more recognizably human, undermining the theme. If these monkey men were truly meant to be more ethical, they would never have been conceived in Dawn in a way that so slavishly apes human behavior.
The real reason Dawn makes its apes seem more like man, even when doing so contradicts its own way of thinking, is to remind audiences of how much we have in common with our simian ancestors and vice versa, a harsh truth which Andy Serkis’ motion-captured Caesar, who has tried to erect a society that is separate but equal, must come to grips with. If Rise was all about the apes becoming ‘enlightened,’ politicized and revolting, Dawn is about their unsuccessful initial attempt to live peaceably alongside duplicitous mankind. When Caesar confides his hopes that ape and man might have a chance to get along, the speech sounds suspiciously like Rodney King’s much parodied plea in the wake of the L.A. riots.
Since the beginning of cinema, commentators have noted how animals, unaware of the camera and unconcerned with playing to the audience, appeared to give the most refreshingly naturalistic performances. It’s not true across the board (some animals learned to mug as outrageously as any pampered child star) and it requires some qualification since a few human actors have managed great performances in the past while dressed in animal rugs. But these Ape films take that general concept to a whole other level entirely, forcing us to acknowledge that we are indeed watching superb trained animal performances being delivered by actors through the modern movie miracle of motion capture. The expert FX render the apes with such hyper clarity, they seem more graphically realistic than anything else on the screen, standing out from the background as starkly as a stereoscopic, even in the flat version.
The beauty and brilliance of motion capture when it works well, is that it can take soulless computer graphics, hologram characters that would have no individual substance alone, and distill the unmistakable human essence of the talent in back of them. Such state of the art visual effects couldn’t find a more ideal outlet than through the agency of these Ape movies which subject viewers to the disorienting sensation of seeing humans posing as animals who are becoming more and more human. The first Planet of the Apes was acclaimed primarily for the lifelike prosthetic makeup devised by John Chambers, monkey masks custom-made to fit the shape of an actor’s face, allowing them a far greater range of flexibility and human expression. Rendering the subtle facial inflections of its subjects with all the fluidity of lifelike movement, MoCap likewise makes it possible to do what the script demands, draw out the nascent humanity, whether good, bad or indifferent, lying dormant beneath the character’s animal skins.
In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Andy Serkis stole top acting honors hands down, as he generally does, from his human co-stars. In the grand tradition of earlier ape actors, he’s like an uncannily graceful, preternaturally sentient animal star who effortlessly upstages the clumsy human talent at hand. He has some choice moments here as well, even if his performance is not scaled to the same dramatic heights as it was in the original. Brought up by humans, in Dawn his Caesar comes to imprint on Malcolm, with their joint investment in preserving a peaceful future for the next generation. They both want to establish diplomatic ties between ape and man for the purpose of making the world safe for their sons. While there’s no interaction between the boys themselves, Nick Thurston plays Blue Eyes, Caesar’s firstborn who temporarily falls under the evil sway of replacement father figure Koba, while Jason’s son Alexander is played by Kodi-Smit McPhee who was so affecting in Reeve’s earlier remake Let Me In.
The director originally cast McPhee in that film sight unseen based on his work in The Road, so it’s no surprise when he turns up here as another survivor of a ravaged, post-apocalyptic landscape in which humans have reverted back to the primitive instincts of their primordial past. The presence of Keri Russell as Ellie, the new stepmother in Alexander’s recombinant family, is more problematic. She made her name as the star of TV’s Felicity, which was co-created by Reeves and J.J. Abrams so clearly her presence, if less justified, is likewise based on long-standing family ties. Her most lasting claim to fame may remain the glorious tangle of shimmering tresses she sported on the WB in the late ’90s, the tragic sacrifice of which legendarily sheared her show’s ratings, but perhaps inspired by her surroundings, she appears to be letting the curled mass reclaim her like the feral mane of some untamed wild woman. All this familial fuzziness is filtered directly into Dawn, whose Oedipal father-son themes have been carried over from the first film and can be traced back to Caesar’s own upbringing as an imported African chimp, Will Rodman raising him as though he were his only son while trying to find a cure for his own father’s Alzheimer’s. The shadow of James Franco, star of the original, hovers over this sequel like a misty remembrance of things past and the continual evocation of his character’s memory affords the movie with some of its most poignant interludes. He seems a stronger, more definitive presence when absent here than he was fully present and accounted for in the first film. It’s Caesar’s standing memory of surrogate father Will that makes it possible for him to still feel such an affinity with humans. And audiences are allowed to share clear recall right along with him in a way none of the other characters on screen can, the director drawing on our collective memory for his emotional effects. When Malcolm assures Caesar that all men are not like the rabidly anti-ape, trigger-happy Carver (played by Kirk Acevedo, from Fringe) who can’t seem to stop provoking the locals, we know his mind, like ours, is flashing back to memories of Will to substantiate the claim. And because of this we can understand why Caesar would accept such an assertion, even if the other apes can’t. As Maurice states, he never knew humans the way Caesar did, only seeing their worst side. But as much as Malcolm may remind Caesar of Will, the only other decent man he ever knew, it seems like overstating the obvious to have him verbally explain who it actually is on the discarded camcorder found in the attic. Even talking apes should realize when silence is golden. Still this scene, which has Caesar returning to the house he grew up in, climbing into the attic of his earliest memories to find all his old dusty, discarded toys and the footage of Will teaching him the word for home in the sign language that will become the apes’ primary means of communication, is one of the most subtly sublime emotional echos a sequel has ever conceived.
Just as both primate populations boast paragons of virtue in Caesar and Malcolm respectively, both groups also harbor their representative malcontents in Koba and Gary Oldman’s Dreyfuss, who are equally willing to go to any extremes to annihilate the other’s species in the interest of preserving their own. Dreyfuss’ determination to blow up the tower the apes are amassing on regardless of the cost to human life is not so far removed from Koba’s suicidal willingness to lead his ape army into the waiting jaws of death to try taking the human outpost, despite the alarming number of casualties. They’re both committed to ensuring the supremacy of their own kind by any means necessary and are at loggerheads since the fallen civilization Dreyfuss is seeking to rebuild is the same one mistreated apes like Koba are determined to never see rise again. Vindictive over having lost his family to the simian flu, Dreyfuss is left sounding like one of those old-school segregationists who refuse to accept other races as equals, claiming that monkeys with guns does not make them men, that they are still ‘animals.’
Andy Serkis owned Rise of the Planet of the Apes; he was the whole show. But in Dawn he must contend with a whole host of equally impressive ape actors out to give him a run for his money, particularly Toby Kebbell who’s been cast as Koba. He steals this sequel from Serkis as surely as Serkis stole the first film right out from under Franco. Monkey see, monkey do. Though throughout the course of the film Caesar repeatedly forgives the egregious transgressions of Kebbell’s Koba, granting him clemency, Malcolm is assured that resentful humans will never find it in their heart forgive simians for the war started by a few misguided rogues, anymore than Koba can forgive man for mangling his mug and treating apes as dispensable guinea pigs.
Lacking that selfsame quality of mercy (“Koba says apes should hate humans,” but it is “From humans Koba learned to hate.”), aligns him more closely with the species he loathes than the apes whose rights he believes he’s asserting. An unforgiving, vindictive type who accuses Caesar of selling out to human interests, Koba is actually the one who ends up seeming most akin to man. He’s a human in ape form, which makes him about as dangerous as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This false prophet’s specious claim that he’s fighting for apes is silenced by the observation that “Koba fight for Koba.” Despite his belief that he’s evolved into a higher order of life worthy of supplanting human beings, he still acts like an animal, clawing and biting to get where he wants, proving that “Koba belong in cage,” or at least a prison pen where he no longer poses a threat to society.
As a sequel Dawn seems, politically speaking, rather weak-kneed in comparison to the first film in which Caesar led a revolt against human tyranny after being experimented upon as a test subject. Here he must put down an uprising led by Koba at the head of an impressive ape army that seems like the realization of Stalin’s vision for Soviet science. And it defeats the purpose in this saga of ape vs. man to end on a note of ape on ape violence which effectively obliterates the picture-long allegation that they are superior to us because they don’t kill one another. The point being made of course is that Koba has become so indistinguishable from man, with his appropriation of firearms and nursing of personal grievances that he may as well be serving as their immediate proxy. Caesar takes full responsibility for having chosen to trust the duplicitous Koba simply because he was a fellow ape, giving in to his own prejudices by instinctively gravitating to others like himself. Acknowledging his similarity to the species, in a way man never would, he notes how he “Always think ape better than human. I see now how much like them we are.” If apes were truly superior beings, Caesar couldn’t claim such a fascistic mentality for them when he says that “ape always chooses strongest branch,” that they won’t turn from Koba while he is still weak.
Koba is the fire-eating radical here, a hotheaded agitator stirring up trouble and dissension among the ranks. When searching for Caesar and learning he can be found down by the dam among the humans, he becomes convinced their leader has sold out the ape’s own interests by foolishly permitting man to build back up the same technologies they once employed to subjugate simians. Mocking Caesar’s assumption that humans regard him as their equal, that he’s on a footing equal to their own now, when Koba goes into his Tom act, he may be directly aping what he believes Caesar has become, a pampered human pet (“Caesar brother to humans.”). Still, it seems a mistake to encapsulate all the ape’s collective ill will toward man in one bad seed. It allows his insurrection to seem like Koba’s personal vendetta, rather than a post-traumatic stress disorder that must be far more prevalent and widespread among the general ape population given their early traumatic experiences at human hands. Koba’s psychological scars cut much deeper than his physical ones.
Though Koba’s ill-advised assault on the outpost leads his forces directly into an enemy ambush and on to disaster, he’s like one of those megalomaniacal military commanders who refuses to admit defeat. While he’s meant to represent anti-colonial interests, he’s been so closely aligned with the mentality of the imperialistic oppressor by this point that Koba more comes across as another Custer, imprudent, glory seeking, charging blindly into enemy territory without any regard for his own safety or that of his men. Despite his claims that he fights for the rights of apes, Koba no longer cares how many of his troops must be sacrificed, so long as his side carries the day. The overdrawn image of this bonobo charging through the barricade of fire surrounding the fortress is unintentionally amusing, and surely the director, by focusing on his crazed visage to show what an absurdly single-minded firebrand he’s become, doesn’t intend the hooting audience to take him seriously.
Making him feel more powerful, guns give Koba a sense of authority he’s never had before, even inspiring him with the belief that he’d make a stronger leader than Caesar by using sniper rifles and other phallic props to overcompensate. Caesar tells Koba he is weak, like humans, which is why he must resort to using weaponry. During the battle, Koba graduates to even bigger guns, commandeering a tank to batter down the gates to the compound. Despite the explosive armory on display, Dawn comes across as a pretty effective anti-NRA campaign. It’s a gun that initially instigates all the interspecies trouble when a jumpy hunter shoots Ash, the son of Caesar’s faithful right-hand man Rocket. Even after the humans agree to turn over all their weapons for the duration of their stay in the ape camp, Carver still keeps a pistol concealed to pull out later. It will be the rifle that Koba obtains after scouting out the human stockpile that will be used to assassinate his ruler in his underhanded attempt at a coup d’etat. Koba is Caesar’s personal Brutus, stabbing him in the back by shooting him down in cold blood and pinning the murder on man to instigate a full-scale ape uprising against them. To make his coup complete, he chains or kills apes considered loyal to Caesar, purging them from his new regime. Placed in holding tanks that resemble circus wagons, dissidents are caged just as they once had been by humans. Ascendant, Koba climbs out an upper story window onto a flagpole draped with the stars and stripes to survey his domain and though this image is iconographic, we can’t be quite sure what the director is trying to say about his conquest of America.
Kebbell gives a remarkable, virtuoso performance as Koba, earning the biggest laughs and most well-warranted hisses. His malevolent, scarred visage and leering, toothy grin with its large, pronounced canines gives us chills but he just as smoothly flip flops into the hooting, unthreatening comic antics of a big ape. Deflecting attention from his real purpose at the armory in order to diffuse the situation, he postpones resorting to violence during his reconnaissance mission for as long possible. Playing up to the stereotype, reinforcing the humans’ most demeaning opinions about his people, he even has the shameless audacity to beg for a banana, making a monkey of himself to put them off guard. Without missing a beat he instantaneously lapses into this dumb animal act to allay the suspicions of his stupid human handlers until he’s laid hold of their firearms. It’s equal parts humor and horror, and with his frightening, hair-trigger temper, we know it’s only a matter of time until they set him off, causing him to break character and go ape sh*t on them. Having learned hate from humans Koba has also picked up the more convenient skill of how to professionally carry out executions. This is Kebbell’s most bravura sequence, as we watch him flawlessly play an ape who is himself aping the antics of the mischievous, dumb monkey the men consider all apes to be. It’s startling that the same character who could so frighten us with his heart-stopping appearance, shrouded in menacing shadow and silhouetted against the black of night when he unexpectedly rose beside the open window of Carver’s jeep (an image out of Murders in the Rue Morgue), could so smoothly slip into this slapstick vaudeville routine without missing a beat or betraying the emotional tone of the character. CG or not this is the essence of superb acting.
Yet not everything in Dawn comes across as well as Kebbell’s Koba. Ape men are known for being brutish and backward, but even this otherwise egalitarian simian society, led by an enlightened Caesar seem like knuckle draggers in their view of a woman’s place. When the ape army sets out to attack the city for instance, rather than being commandeered to defend their homestead, all females are packed off to the woods to hide with the children in case the village is targeted for reprisals and no one seems to find anything amiss about this. Though Judy Greer has been cast as Caesar’s mate Cornelia there are no strong ape women on par even with Kim Hunter’s lady scientist in the original Planet of the Apes and that movie came out almost half a century ago. To date, the series hasn’t introduced a single solitary female ape of interest.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes suffers from the holes in continuity and gaps in logic expected of an epic on so expansive a scale. Though they don’t irreparably damage the film, we’re left pondering such incidentals as why the humans didn’t just explain their relatively honorable intentions when the apes came to their city to warn them away, and where all the humans who were captured and caged by Koba’s minions suddenly disappeared to once freed from their pen, scattering like cockroaches at the flip of a switch. There’s a cartoonish level of literalism hanging over the entire enterprise, which makes it seem as if the intended audience were the young male comic book aficionado used to having everything spelled out in big, bold caption balloons. We don’t need to be told for instance that Koba doesn’t trust humans when we can read everything we need to from his eloquently expressive countenance.
Per usual, the apes afford the movie’s biggest and brightest highlights. It was idly speculated by doomsayers awhile back that motion capture would eventually replace the need for live actors in movies of this sort altogether. And while it’s supremely unlikely that will ever happen, Dawn stands as the most persuasive evidence to the validity of this argument so far, since the only impressive acting in it is relegated to the CG performances, making the human actors seem superfluous in comparison. But if motion capture ever does supplant live action, the negligence in writing compelling characters for actors to play in the flesh will be just as responsible as the advances in digital technology. CG apes can’t help but upstage the competition when they’re juxtaposed with characters that come across as trite and tiresome by contrast.
So much time and energy is poured into creating convincing MoCap effects so that the money spent is evident onscreen, movie makers rarely bother giving much thought to creating equally gripping characters for their live performers to play. Consequently they come off as one-dimensional caricatures while the special effect holograms seem imbued with all the depth and resonance of multi-faceted, 3-dimensional human beings. This is the great mordant irony of modern, green screen-dominated movie making, which regresses cinema back to the mindset of 2001 where the machine seemed more human that the astronauts. The directors of CG-centered blockbusters like Dawn would do well to be more evenhanded in the way they divvy up rewarding characterizations between motion capture and live action performers. They should strive harder to forge the sort of universal harmonious balance we keep expecting these anthropomorphic screen apes to establish with the natural world.