Not quite 13 years ago, Tim Burton released his reimagined version of Planet of the Apes. I watched it, thought I had some things to say about it that people might be interested in, and persuaded the estimable Shazz to put it in the Post. 200 columns and ten years later, I found myself marking the tenth anniversary with a review of Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
So it seems only appropriate that this 350th edition of 24LAS is concerned with yet another Apes film: I can only hope they continue to release them at such appropriate intervals. This time it is Matt Reeve's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Rupert Wyatt did such a sterling job of restarting the series that his replacement by Reeves (best known for the so-so Cloverfield and the underrated Let Me In) was taken by many as an ill omen. Which just goes to show that sometimes nobody knows anything.
Maintaining unprecedentedly good continuity with the previous film, Dawn opens with virally-uplifted chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) leading his colony of similar simians in the forests of northern California. The apes are enjoying a rather idyllic existence, and some of them are beginning to believe that the humans who once tormented them have done everyone a favour by dying out in the plague which was just getting underway at the end of the last installment.
There'd be no movie in that, of course, and a remnant of human survivors are indeed ensconced in what's left of San Francisco, led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, who's not in the film as much as you might expect). The humans are running desperately low on fuel and other resources, and Dreyfus despatches his lieutenant Malcolm (Jason Clarke) to look into the possibility of reactivating the hydroelectric generators attached to a dam in the wilderness. Unfortunately, the dam is squarely in ape territory.
Relations between apes and humans do not get off to a good start, but the best efforts of Caesar and Malcolm result in a wary truce between the two groups. However, the history of mutual suspicion and prejudice between man and ape means that open conflict may only be a matter of time...
The consensus last time round was that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was, on some level, a superior rethinking of 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (look, just to save wear on my keyboard, I'm going to start referring to these films by the first couple of words of their title, okay?). Logic therefore dictates that this sequel should be drawing on 1973's Battle for... Doing a really good remake of Conquest is a neat trick but nothing particularly remarkable, as that was a movie with a strong central idea, undone by the exiguencies of running time and budget. Making a good version of Battle, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish, as that film is the closest thing to a complete waste of time this side of Helena Bonham Carter.
And yet that is arguably just what Reeves has managed to do. In terms of actual plotting, Battle and Dawn have about in much as common as Conquest and Rise (which is to say, not very much at all), but when it comes to theme and characterisation the two films are very much on the same page: a clash between human and ape communities, with entrenched zealots on both sides, and an oddly tragic moral awakening amongst the apes themselves. Indeed, I would even suggest it's as if Reeves and the films' writers have got their hands on a copy of Paul Dehn's original unmade script for Battle, which concerned itself with the apes' fall from grace and the overthrow of Caesar by less emollient forces.
These ideas are present in Dawn, too, along with a distinct focus on the ape characters rather than the humans. It's a tribute to the astonishing work of the VFX team, not to mention Reeves' own storytelling skills, that a story primarily set amongst a non-human community, with largely mute characters, is as compelling as it is. Reeves' first storytelling coup is to create an opening sequence which is thoroughly engrossing despite not featuring a single word of spoken dialogue, and his second is to make the unexpected appearance of a common-or-garden human being feel like a viscerally jarring shock.
Tellingly, it's only at this point that the apes begin speaking, and it seems to me that this ties into the underlying message of the film: prior to meeting the humans, it's strongly implied that the apes have lived in peace and harmony for years, and there's nothing to suggest that the same is not true of the humans. Yet, within days of their first encounter, bloody conflict has broken out between the two - perhaps inevitably. Humans and apes have more in common than either side wants to admit, and perhaps this explains why they seem almost predestined to fight each other to the death.
This is a bleak, dark, strange theme for a big studio SF movie, but exactly what you'd expect from a proper Apes movie, and the various action sequences are brilliantly realised. It doesn't have quite the same degree of social commentary as the films in the original cycle, but then that's the state of SF movies these days, I suppose. Dawn certainly feels very confident in its own identity: it contains nothing like the same number of references and in-jokes as Rise (although the score does sound very familiar at certain points).
And, accomplished as it is, this is a film with every right to a certain swagger. It works very well as both an action blockbuster and a dark, intelligent SF movie, and extremely well as a Planet of the Apes film. I am just forced to wonder where this revitalised series is going to go next: having run out of original-cycle films to reinterpret, the only options left are either more of the same, or to take a really radical step of some kind. I've no idea which way Reeves will take the series next: but at the moment everything on the planet of the apes is rosy, in a grim and twisted sort of way.