“Planet of the Apes” is the dawn of a great franchise

By Josh R. Weitzel

The “Planet of the Apes” franchise has been a staple of the science-fiction genre since 1968. Although no sequel was as critically acclaimed as the original, the series has enjoyed success with a reboot in 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which employed revolutionary visual technology and a thrilling origin story set in modern day. The latest sequel, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” is not only one of the best films in the franchise, but also one of the best recent science-fiction films.

The film is set 10 years after “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” After a plague wipes out most of the human race, survivors establish colonies around the world. While the human colonies struggle to survive, Caesar (Andy Serkis), a genetically modified ape, has established a flourishing colony of genius apes who communicate using sign language and primitive speech in the forests of San Francisco.

Early in the film, the humans have their first encounter with the apes. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), one of the human leaders, wants to use a dam as a source of energy for the human city. Caesar, one of the few apes who trusts the humans, allows him to fix it. However, Caesar’s advisor, Koba (Toby Kebbell), thinks Caesar is too trusting. Caesar believes that apes and humans can coexist, but he and Malcolm must stop an ape from destroying the human civilization before it is too late.

The film successfully builds off of its predecessor. The new world that Caesar has created for himself and his fellow apes is astounding. Fans of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” will recognize a few familiar faces in Caesar’s corner, such as Maurice the orangutan, or Koba, a lab-ape covered in scars. These characters become fully fleshed out in the sequel and have excellent story arcs. Caesar’s character is further developed by establishing a philosophy that he believes makes them more honorable than the humans: “ape does not kill ape.” However, he soon realizes that apes are more like humans than previously believed, and his philosophy must change as he clashes with his fellow apes. While Caesar may not be human, his relationship with his family makes him relatable. His son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, but questions his father’s beliefs. Caesar also has a sick wife and a newborn son at home to worry about and he repeatedly states to his fellow apes that he values home and family above all else. Such priorities define how he interacts with the humans throughout the film.

While the story is beautifully told, there are several recognizable tropes involved. Caesar is essentially a king to his people, but when he returns to make a stand, appears Shakespearean in its themes of betrayal and redemption. Caesar also learns how to become a stronger leader from the ashes of conflict. The base of the story might be familiar, but the construction of the world around it is refreshingly original.

The film’s real feat is the visual effects. Like the first film in the rebooted franchise, the apes were created with motion capture technology, which paints new visuals over actors wearing specialized skin-tight suits. Every movement an actor makes—from the way they walk to the way they blink—reconfigured with the ape-like appearance. This gives apes distinct personalities that go beyond their appearance. Andy Serkis, who is known for his motion capture work, has outdone himself in reprising the role of Caesar. Although Serkis’ real face is hidden behind layers of digital paint, every bit of subtlety in the character’s actions is perfectly portrayed. The end result is not just a computer-generated character but a real performance by a real actor. The human characters are also well-acted across the board.

But like any film, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” isn’t without a few flaws, which mostly stem from a lack of character development. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the leader of the human society in San Francisco, plays a huge part in the first act before disappearing almost entirely until the last half hour. Caesar’s wife and newborn son are only given enough screen time to solidify their importance to Caesar’s character, but don’t hold any real significance in the story.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a brilliant sequel that deserves to be recognized as one of the best films in the long-running franchise. It is a beautifully constructed tale that sets the stage for an even greater sequel.