Guns don’t kill people. Monkeys with guns kill people. The highly-anticipated sequel to the 2011 prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, takes place ten years after the events of the first film. Life has pretty much sucked for the humans since they created and successfully infected themselves with the Simian flu. The virus is a twist of irony, originally designed to cure terminal disease in humans. Civilized life as we know it now is pretty much dead and gone. If you’re seeing this film without watching Rise, you’ll be a little lost, but there aren’t any huge jumps in logic you need to make to understand Dawn. The introductory sequence of Dawn does a decent job of filling us in what happened logistically, but we really get no feeling of empathy for what happens to the humans because we come in ten years after the outbreak has occurred – something that we can probably assume was done on purpose.
The main difference between the films is that in Rise, you cheered for the apes the entire time. The evil humans tortured and experimented on the apes, and the apes wanted nothing but to be free and left alone. This isn’t like Deep Blue Sea, where the experimented sharks became expert-level human hunters. No, things are not so black and white in Dawn, which is what makes the film so great. The culmination of action is a slow-building process, comprised of bad decisions and miscommunications that make complete logical sense as they unfold, but still give you the gut-wrenching feeling as they happen. It only takes one bad seed to spoil a whole bunch, something that both sides become guilty of. Knowing the truth as a member of the audience and not being able to do anything about it is the toughest part of watching the film; you just want the good guys to win.
Visually, Dawn is completely awing. We get a great look into the life that the apes have built for themselves. Their culture is thriving, there are litters of young ones roaming around, and there is a noticeable group dynamic between the community (and some straight-up frightening war paint). Dawn was filmed using a combination of live-action stunts, CGI and motion-capture suits, giving it a very realistic look. In fact, a lot of the stunts were overseen by former Cirque du Soleil gymnast, Terry Notary.
Caesar, the same leader from Rise, has unanimously been given the crown of, well, Caesar. Among him are his most trusted friends, Maurice the Orangoutang, Rocket (a bully turned second in command), and Koba (the ugliest, most jaded SOB in the land). The apes stick to their side of the Golden Gate bridge – which we can only assume is Oakland. Caesar has seen the good in humans and has a much more well-rounded understanding of them than apes who had been tortured their whole lives by scientists. This difference of opinion thereafter becomes the dividing line between the apes, and is ultimately what mucks everything up.
What makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes such a compelling story is that it borrows elements from several other classic stories. There is an amazing parallel to the story of Julius Caesar, which was referenced briefly in the first film. The great commander was victim to the betrayal of his closest when blind ambition superseded the logic and strategy of the current leadership. He was struck down so that a new era could begin – the Roman Empire. Whether or not Caesar in the film fulfills the prophecy of the Ides of March, you’ll have to watch to find out. The archetypal story influence doesn’t end there, though. Dawn borrows elements from other classical animal stories, notably Animal Farm, The Lion King and The Fox and the Hound.
To keep the apes with the greatest amount of civility, Caesar creates basic rules to live by, the strongest rule being “Ape not kill ape,” which is strikingly familiar to Animal Farm’s “No animal shall kill any other animal.” Everybody is a fan of the life that Caesar’s spoils have wrought, but become sheep under the more ambitious and “passionate” apes who want to imprison and torture the humans. With deception and, really propaganda, the humans become the target, and the peaceful ways of Caesar (Snowball in Animal Farm) are only as strong as his position in leadership. There is, of course, more development in the book, but it looks like things could easily get to that point in the third film, set to premiere in two years with Reeves repeating as director. Let’s just say that the end of the movie is far from the harmonious ending we wish we had as a viewer (we do know that, in the end of either Dawn and Animal Farm , things don’t necessarily work out for us humans).
The most emotion I felt during Dawn were the scenes that reminded me of how I felt watching Disney movies as a kid. The Lion King references are more visual than anything, but it’s certainly arguable that there are some plot similarities, too. There is a particular seen that made me scream “Scar!!” in the theater. For those that saw Rise, you will be getting those nostalgic pains that Fox and the Hound did. The whole time, I just wished that we could go back to the time when Caesar was causing havoc with James Franco, before the Simian flu, before the all out war between humans and primates. I miss the good old days. Or if I couldn’t have that, I just wanted to go back to the beginning so we could watch the apes in their own civilization. The entire movie could have done without humans altogether. Specifically Gary Oldman, who basically reprises his role of Commissioner Gordon, but a complete jerk, and his desperation causes more grief than it does solve problem.
Clocking in at just over two hours, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is briskly-paced and each event naturally progresses the story. There was never a time I had to wonder how much time was left, or how long it had been. This is a heavily under-appreciated quality in a movie, and if you just sat through the latest Transformers movie, you know exactly what we’re talking about. Dawn was able to keep me engaged throughout the film, and it was largely due to the great ambiance of a post-apocalyptic world where desperation leads to a series of realistic pitfalls. The tremendous acting by Caesar’s Andy Serkis and company sell what has been the greatest movie of the year thus far. In 2014, Apes rule, and I’m okay with that.