Friday 29 January 2021

Your Move, Darwin #10: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

(Before I start this one, I'd like to take a moment to dedicate this one to Planet of the Apes superfan Mark Talbot-Butler, who passed away recently. I did not know Mark well, but he was a hugely positive presence in the fan community, and was an invaluable help in the writing of several of the earlier posts in this series, which I'm only really returning to because Mark has passed, and I feel I owe it to the guy to finish the work I began. Mark is and will continue to be missed.)  

In any movie franchise, especially a genre franchise, you inevitably wind up doing a retread or two. You have to. You’ll always have to return to some ideas, because that's what makes it a sequel. In the era of the reboot, this is more acute still, as essentially you sometimes wind up making the same film, only with some parts updated, or even some messages flipped, so you get a Godzilla movie where they save the world with a nuclear bomb, or a Robocop movie where only some of the corporate executives are baddies, or a Superman movie where he's an objectivist who doesn't care about the consequences of collateral damage. Or a Spider-Man movie reboot where everything is pretty much exactly the same apart from Aunt May being sorta hot.

This is relevant for our purposes because of all the Planet of the Apes movies, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the one that most closely retreads one of its predecessors, being an intentional remix of Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The basic structure is the same: the apes, founding a nascent civilisation, come into contact with and clash with a dying human colony; meanwhile, the leader – in both films called Caesar – faces a coup from a lieutenant that makes everything much worse; the film climaxes in a one on one fight between Caesar and the usurper. On the way they address Caesar's beginnings. Oh, and there's a bit at the start with an ape schoolroom.

It's unavoidable when a sequel does this, and it's neither a good or a bad thing. You have the same set of basic premises, maybe the same setting and many of the same characters. A premise comes with a set of baked in conflicts and conflicts lend themselves to certain sorts of story. Imagine a box full of Lego bricks: if you've got a lot of windows, doors and roof pieces, you're going to be building a lot of houses. If you have a lot of wheels in there, you'll probably wind up building cars and trucks.And although there are a lot of stories you can tell with this as the basis, eventually you're going to wind up repeating yourself, whether accidentally or by design. 

The bricks in the Planet of the Apes box are simple enough. A Planet of the Apes story is more or less built on the premise that there are apes who are at least as smart as humans and humans clash with them.

The apes might have internal conflict; the humans might have changed in some way; the planet might not be ruled by apes yet; there might be some apes who help out the humans or humans who help out the apes. But there is always at the heart of the story an issue with apes and humans kicking off. The Planet of the Apes doesn't get to be a planet with apes in it, doing ape stuff, unless there are humans objecting to there being a Planet of the Apes in some way.

Even the title, Planet of the Apes, signifies that there's a problem with it. There's no Planet of the Humans, after all. That's just, you know, the Planet, because we, the homosapiens (and OK, OK, the heterosapiens too if you really must), are the default. Even when they've got the upper hand the Planet of the Apes is never normalised.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes tries to present just this. A default Planet of the Apes. Apes doing ape stuff. There's some trouble with a bear and a bit of relational friction, but it's nothing anyone can't handle. The general feeling of a world where things aren't perfect, just OK, makes this the closest point to a normalised Planet of the Apes we're likely to see anywhere. It lasts about twelve minutes, and the moment where it is definitively over is the point where Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Maurice (Karin Konoval) have a conversation – mainly in sign language, because most of the apes aren't as good at talking as Caesar – that roughly goes:

“Well, everything is all right, I guess.”
“Been a while since we've seen any humans though. Reckon there are any more out there?”
“Nah. They're all dead.”

Of course, within seconds some humans turn up. Way to jinx your civilization, Caesar. 

Had the first contact been made with Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and adopted mum Ellie (Keri Russell), things might have been OK, since they are the most sympathetic humans in the movie. But the first person to come face to face with an ape is their nervy, cowardly companion Carver (Kirk Acevedo) whose first action is to panic, shooting and wounding Caesar's son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston).

Caesar cries out in frustration: Go! And it's the utterance once again – uncanny, born in anger – that really kicks off the coming human-ape conflict. Malcolm's respect and awe is drowned out by Carver's terror, and when the group return to their San Francisco enclave and report to their leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), fear wins the day, especially when Caesar and an army of apes turn up at the gates of the San Francisco compound demanding that they simply be left alone.

The apes cannot simply be left alone. The people of San Francisco, desperate for any chance to kick start civilisation, need to reactivate the hydroelectric dam that now sits in the apes’ territory. But if Malcolm cannot make a deal with Caesar to gain access to the dam, Dreyfus says they're going to have to take it by force. He sends Malcolm up into the forest to negotiate, but he also cracks open the armoury. 

Caesar's lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) has a venomous hatred of humans that stems from his time as a lab animal (as shown in Rise). Koba becomes convinced that the humans all have to die for the apes to be safe, especially when, spying on them, he sees them arming up on Dreyfus's orders.

And this is a comfortable, easy setup for what happens next. Every plot development in the film goes back and forth, each with its counter. 

Malcolm and Caesar make an agreement. Carver very nearly ruins it, but the power is reconnected and the lights turn on. Koba challenges Caesar. Caesar humiliates him. Koba kills some of Dreyfus's men and steals some guns. He shoots Caesar and, thinking him dead, tells the apes that the humans did it, and a war begins. The apes outclass the humans and herd them into pens, but Koba also begins to treat the apes loyal to Caesar brutally, killing or imprisoning followers who object to his massacre of the humans. Malcolm and Ellie rescue Caesar and nurse him back to health. Caesar returns and confronts Koba, but it's too late; Dreyfus has, having contacted a military base somewhere to the north, wired up his headquarters to explode. Dreyfus’s pointlessly destructive, suicidal and futile action ruins any chance of peace and although Caesar and Malcolm part as friends, the apes have to leave before the soldiers arrive. 

The film is built from a neatly structured set of parallels. The four principals – Caesar and Dreyfus, Malcolm and Koba – are contrasted over and over again. Caesar has suffered much but has found reasons to live and desires peace; his deputy, Koba holds on to the trauma of torture and abuse and desires revenge, and that vengeful drive leads him even to assault and kill his own and eventually to forfeit his place in Caesar's society. Dreyfus’s family died in the pandemic, and he is a man with nothing to lose and a reduced capacity to be reasonable, resulting in his Hard Brexit at the film’s climax. His deputy, Malcolm, has also lost much, but has found reasons to live and desires peace. 

We'll see a scene with Caesar and his family, and it will be matched with a scene with Malcolm and his own family. Koba’s trauma is addressed; Dreyfus's grief is addressed. Koba stirs up his followers; Dreyfus stirs up his community. Dreyfus cracks open the armoury; Koba arms up the apes. 

Caesar winds up briefly in his original home. We discover that Will Rodman died in the pandemic too. A deleted scene from War for the Planet of the Apes reveals that dying off camera between movies was supposed to be Malcolm's fate too, but it didn't make the final cut. Still, given how the series develops, it's easily the most logical fate for him and for a family who don't really get a whole lot of development in the script. 

Few risks are taken. The director is Matt Reeves, who would also go on to direct War for the Planet of the Apes. Reeves is very much in the category of the Popcorn Auteur, the director of genre action movies who started out in cheaper genre movies or genre TV, and wound up making big genre movies, and who's a directorial name in big tentpole blockbusters without really being Ingmar Bergman exactly. He's in a similar category to James Gunn, perhaps, or Joss Whedon or JJ Abrams. Reeves is arguably the best of these directors. His films are consistent in tone, and well constructed. Characters have logical and understandable motivations. His work is not prone to immediately visible plot holes, and if not risky exactly, carries the potential to be perverse in interesting ways, which is sort of what you want from a Planet of the Apes film. 

The parallels between Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes are too many not to note and certainly too many to be accidental. Even aside from the major plot points, the score, which is excellent, calls back the avant-garde simian soundscapes of the original movie. But while Battle for the Planet of the Apes is (probably) nobody's favourite Planet of the Apes movie, this is not true of Dawn. Aside from having one of the best critical receptions of the series, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is by a clear distance the most profitable of all the Planet of the Apes movies, even adjusting the older movies for inflation. In 2014 it made the top ten lists for both highest grossing movies worldwide and most profitable, competing on a level field with an overwhelming dominance of superhero movies that only really broke when they started making Star Wars movies again (which sort of underlines the point really). A lot of people went to see it, and when they saw it, they liked it. The general critical and fan consensus is that it's the best of the new movies. 

I don't think it is. I don't think it's the least of them, because Rise, although ambitious, is horribly flawed, but the fact is that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn't really have much to say, and in story terms is terribly safe. Outside of the four main characters – all male – nobody else really gets much characterisation beyond fairly superficial beats. Maurice is kind and loyal, Blue Eyes wants to strike out on his own and follows Koba, but immediately goes back to his dad when he finds out he's alive, Carver blames the apes for the pandemic. Ellie, the last talking human woman in the series, lost her family and she takes the place of the lost wife and mother in Malcolm's family, and she's a doctor and that's basically all we get. Alexander likes drawing. Caesar's wife Cornelia is a cipher. Rocket (Terry Notary), the alpha ape from Rise, is – well, he's not really a character at all. Compared to beautifully sketched minor characters from the original series like Lucius and Virgil, whose relatively brief screen time still allowed for memorable turns, something is missing. The surface of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is perfectly tooled and the plot does everything it's supposed to, but it’s not quite as thought provoking as its predecessors, which is especially telling when we're watching a film that starts with the collapse of civilisation and which hopes we're going to root for an ape. 

I think the main signifier of that curious lack of depth is the way in which the film's care for detail only extends so far. On the one hand, the apes have the same sense of physicality that they had before, and the film's characters have a weight to them that the bouncing-bubble movements of many Marvel and DC superhero movies would still do well to take notice of. We see water running over fur. We see blood and teeth. Aside from a few moments, we forget that the characters are CGI representations, and that's largely due to the fact that you can actually see the performances of Toby Kebbell and Andy Serkis, even under those virtual masks. 

But on the other hand, the beautifully realised post-apocalyptic San Francisco – built in Canada, Hollywood's go-to for alien worlds, futuristic landscapes and small towns in Hallmark Christmas movies – is apparently only really believable if you don't live in San Francisco. The landmarks are recognisable enough, but many of the details of geography and infrastructure are a bit off. And that's sort of where we're left with whatever depth the movie has. It looks nice. It works all right structurally. It's a solid, efficiently made movie that serves as a continuation of a franchise and not a whole lot more beyond the baseline conflicts and concerns of a Planet of the Apes movie. One of the reasons in fact that it's taken me so long to get back to this series, despite having wound up watching it about five times in the last two years, is that this movie has been so very hard to write about, and not because it's bad (bad movies are a snap to write about) but because it's so effective at doing what it wants to do and nothing much more. Even watching in 2020, a film about the results of a pandemic should inspire more thoughts than that, but the pandemic in the film is only a means to a narrative end. 

It's a Planet of the Apes movie. And a decent one. In a year where where the only top ten movie that wasn't a franchise sequel or a Marvel superhero movie (or both) was another of Christopher Nolan's insufferable “look at me, I'm an important film” productions, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, with its CGI frills and things-blowing-up thrills, fits in that ten pretty comfortably, in a way that no other Planet of the Apes movie could. And I'm not sure that, although this – a successful popcorn movie – is what every one of the Planet of the Apes movies has aspired to, this is what the series really suits. 

But I'm dunking on it for achieving success in every one of its goals. Popcorn movies can be good movies. They can say things. I just can't help feeling that this sort of film can be more. Maybe another go will sort that out.

Increasingly Heretical Ape Rankings
1. Planet of the Apes (1968)
2. Escape from the Planet of the Apes
3. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
5. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
6. Return to the Planet of the Apes
7. Beneath the Planet of the Apes
8. Battle for the Planet of the Apes
9. Planet of the Apes (the TV series)
10. Planet of the Apes (2001)