“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014)


Finally. A good “Planet of the Apes” movie. A really good one. One that isn’t stupid and cliched, no less.

The back-story is that a plague carried by apes and monkeys more or less wipes out humanity. A decade or so later, the apes from the last movie have set up camp near San Francisco, where a bunch of the remaining humans are also trying to survive. Their paths finally cross and then things get interesting. The humans don’t trust the apes because they carried the plague. The apes don’t trust the humans because of what the humans did to them before everything collapsed.

For starters, the special effects and sets are incredible. The ape encampment is pretty huge and made all of cut down trees and branches (at least that’s what it looks like … it could also be CG … either way it’s impressive in detail). Just the work to construct that set is impressive, especially since all the neighboring vegetation is still intact. Then the San Francisco set is also spot on – it really looks like the city would ten years after The Apocalypse.

The ape make-up is super good. They don’t all look alike, and the facial expressions are very believable within the constraints of what an simian’s facial should be capable of. Judging from some of the production photos, it looks like they did digital texture-mapping of the ape faces onto the human actors in post-production … friggin’ impressive. The CG animations of the apes moving around is brilliant – it’s not the “lizards running up a tree” crap from the last movie. The movements are natural and diverse and have character.

The ape “dialog” is in two parts. One is their non-verbal communication between each other. This is as complex as human dialog, but they use subtitles to “translate.” When the apes do speak, it’s usually mono-syllabic and slowly spoken – but the lines are delivered with passion. A lot is said with the tone of the few spoken words.

Unlike a lot of sci-fy movies these days which want to produce “epics,” this film keeps the core cast small. Even though there’s a fair number of incidental characters, it’s really only about eight primary characters that keep the story moving along. This means there isn’t the usual amount of useless drivel and “acting” and “drama”. The story is tight with very little wasted footage.

Of course, like any good science fiction, this movie is an allegory for the times. The apes and humans are so close to finding peace together. Except for a few radicals who are unable to put their fear and past hatreds behind them. These two pivotal characters effectively start the war and end up causing huge loss of life on both sides. Kind of sounds like a certain part of the world we keep seeing in the news, don’t it?

The battle scenes are pretty wild. It’s actually a pretty short “main battle” scene relative to the whole movie but they did a nice job capturing the way an ape culture which now has firearms would likely conduct an attack. This is not like “Starship Troopers” with CG-replicated waves of attackers. Each ape attacker has unique actions and fights (or dies) in a unique way. It’s pretty damn impressive, really.

The humans are what they are, as usual. But over the course of the film the leader of the apes comes to realize how much like humans they’ve become now that they’re a society. It’s not just the “ape shall not kill ape” thing – it’s what made it all happen, the break-downs in decisions, the fracturing of loyalty, the selfishness, the fear. But you also get to see how the apes also picked up some good human qualities too – like forgiveness and kindness. Right up to the end the ape culture could still go either way, the director rides the edge as good as you’ll see.

And, for the first time in a long time, after watching this movie I’m looking forward to the next installment – assuming they keep the same director (Matt Reeves) and writers and crew. This is possibly the best new movie I’ve seen all year.