Planet of the Apes: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

In Hollywood’s current reboot-obsessed environment it was only a matter of time before 20th Century Fox returned to the Planet of the Apes franchise (a franchise they had already attempted to resuscitate in 2001) and gave it a new twist for modern audiences. In 2011 they rebooted the franchise with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which also spawned a sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which came out earlier this month. By modern twist, I mean the filmmakers decided to go gritty. Gone is the original movie’s humour. Gone is an awareness on the part of the filmmakers that a planet run by super-smart apes is something of a ludicrous notion and that human viewers will treat such a sight with some level of incredulity. Gone is the time travel mechanism. Gone is the potent social commentary. Gone is the interest in humanity at all. All that remain are incredible special effects, breathtaking pace, and some seriously brooding apes.

I love chimpanzees. I’m also afraid of them. And it’s appropriate to be afraid of them. — Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of the better received reboots of the last decade. Although the film is deathly bland, it’s not hard to see why the majority of audiences and critics embraced the film. It has a brooding protagonist and takes its ludicrous idea dead seriously. In the current Hollywood climate, filmmakers and producers seem to only know how to deal with unbelievable high-concept storylines by taking them at their face value and refusing to acknowledge the silliness of the very concept. There’s no longer a balancing act between the intrigue of the concept and its tenuous believability. This dedication to the idea, to not let an ounce of disbelief trickle into the film, works for most viewers, as grittiness is seen as dedication and realism. The original Planet of the Apes film does much the opposite, explicitly acknowledging the ridiculousness of its idea in an effort to win our acceptance. Sadly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes only uses self-seriousness as a shell to mask its lack of interest in confronting its own ideas and world. Its seriousness is only pretence.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is also incredibly fast paced. It never slows down long enough to let you realize the lack of ideas behind the CGI theatrics. Yet the CGI theatrics are genuinely marvelous.

Andy Serkis goes full ape in his motion-capture gear, depicting the genetically-engineered Caesar as he comes to terms with his own intelligence and his fellow apes’ need for freedom. Serkis has been better in other roles that give him more to do (Gollum and King Kong come to mind), but I must admit that Caesar is an easy protagonist to like. He’s blocked at every turn, put in an impossible situation, and through his cleverness, he ultimately triumphs, winning his and the other apes’ freedom while also genetically enhancing their intelligence with stolen Gen Sys product. Freedom is a hard thing to root against in a film. Too bad he’s occasionally given little more to do than to brood at the screen, bitter at the human’s treating him like any other ape even as he demands the other apes treat him like a human.

My problems with Rise of the Planet of the Apes don’t have to do with its CGI craftsmanship or the way it characterizes the apes. I’m still fond of the orangutan Maurice, with his jowly cheeks and gentle eyes. I understand the appeal of immense computer resources being put to work animating an ape stealing cookies from a cookie jar or enjoying the freedom of the California redwoods instead of depicting a metropolitan centre being decimated. Sadly the entire film is an empty shell. I can admire its craftsmanship, but I miss the lack of substance at its core. Rise of the Planet of the Apes has no interest in the humans. It has no interest in social commentary beyond name-checking some political buzzwords like animal rights and the morality of genetic engineering. The problem with the film is that after having seen it twice, I don’t know what it’s about, except perhaps that, as the above quote indicates, chimpanzees are cool, scary, and it’s fun to watch a movie where you can be both scared and excited by them.

My major reservation about Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ storytelling is how it treats its human characters. James Franco can add devilish energy to rote blockbuster roles (I think of his performance in last year’s Oz: The Great and Powerful), but here, as Dr. Will Rodman, the scientist responsible for genetically engineering the apes in an attempt to cure Alzheimer's, he is dead on arrival. Franco is given nothing more to do than propel the plot forward and serve as the human companion to Caesar. At the end of the film I found myself questioning who this character was. In the 104 minutes of the film, we don’t learn anything deeper about him than he is fond of Caesar and that his medical research work is personally motivated by trying to cure his father’s Alzheimer’s. He’s nothing more that a plot device, but then again, so are all the humans in this film.

Freida Pinto’s Caroline Aranha and David Oyelowo’s Steven Jacobs are the most egregious examples of this. They never even feign to be anymore than cliche roles traipsing about the screen. Pinto is relegated to the role of Will’s conscience. She has hardly more than 10 lines in the film and each of those lines is dedicated to explaining information that the audience is already aware of or externalizing Will’s internal struggle. Oyelowo is even worse as he is nothing more than “Greedy Businessman.” In every scene he appears in, Oyelowo draws the conversation back to his obsession with money, as if we’d forget his shallow, plainly-drawn motivations if we weren’t always reminded of his evil.

Only John Lithgow, as Will’s ailing father, imbues his character with anything resembling humanity, but he is just another plot device, quickly discarded from the film after he has illuminated the necessary motivations behind Will’s Alzheimer’s cure. For a film praised for its humanity in the depiction of its apes, you’d think it’d give more than a whit for the humans that comprise half of its running time.

The rest of my issues with Rise of the Planet of the Apes draw on its bland social commentary and rote filmmaking. The original Planet of the Apes films used their radical concept as a way to expose humanity’s inhumanity. The famous twist ending of the original film shows that nuclear war caused the downfall of Earth, and that humanity’s own barbarity paved the way for ape domination. In the fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the seeds of the ape rebellion are shown to be the brutality apes have suffered as slaves to the humans. The original series clearly showed that the bizarro version of the future, where humans were nothing more than dumb hominids and apes controlled the planet, was a direct result of human evil.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes never shows humanity’s downfall as a result of our evil. It contextualizes each instance of human brutality. Steven Jacobs mistreats the apes because he is greedy. Caroline Aranha treats them well because she is kind. For every Dodge Landon (Tom Felton, who is disrespectfully given some of Heston’s best lines from the original film), who callously abuses apes, there is a Rodney (Jamie Harris), who recognizes the cruelty of Dodge’s behaviour. The original series showed that humanity’s undoing was a result of war and slavery, our two greatest evils. Rise of the Planet of the Apes shows that humanity’s downfall is a result of trying to cure an awful disease like Alzheimer's. What perceptive commentary are we meant to glean from that, aside from an unconvincing argument that animal testing is immoral and medical drugs shouldn’t be rushed through development for the sake of profit?

On the filmmaking side, Rupert Wyatt’s direction is never more than journeyman storytelling. He overly relies on digital camera moves and stitching together shots during editing to create the illusion of sweeping movement. The first time the camera floats throughout Will’s house following Caesar as he grabs a cookie and then rushes into the attic to peer out of the window is inventive. The fourth time this sort of digital coverage is used it becomes distracting. So much of Wyatt’s direction is meant to distract us from the shallowness of the material. He never weds theme and form. He merely serves to propel the story along to the inevitable ape uprising.

In the end, perhaps Wyatt should be given more credit than I’m giving him, for he certainly convinced the majority of moviegoers of an integrity the film is lacking. But upon scrutiny, anything impressive about Rise of the Planet of the Apes falls away. It is not about anything other than the surface-level technical wizardry it projects; its shallowness is embodied best by the care and craft the filmmakers dedicate to each individual hair on the apes’ digital bodies, but not the story the apes are a part of.

Apes not kill apes. — Koba (Toby Kebbell)

You are no ape. — Caesar (Andy Serkis)

After Rise of the Planet of the Apes I was pleased to see that its flaws are absent from its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Vague, repetitive title aside, this continuation—directed by Matt Reeves and set 10 years later—delivers in many of the ways its predecessor failed to. It smartly focuses on the ape characters at its centre, exploring their perceptions of reality while also moving closer to a world familiar to the one seen in the original series. It’s more clear in the commentary it wishes to make about the human propensity to mistrust others, as well as the human (and ape) desire to create community in order to develop as a species.

Community is the theme that drives Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Early in the film, human survivors of the simian flu that decimated humanity at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes come across Caesar’s super-smart apes in the forests outside San Francisco. Caesar’s apes scare them back to the city, where they take refuge in their makeshift colony lead by Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus. The humans need to get to a hydroelectric dam on the other side of the woods to provide power for the city, but the apes are hesitant to let them through. Soon enough, Jason Clarke’s Malcolm decides to risk the woods and convince Caesar to let them fix the dam. It’s a gutsy move as Caesar doesn’t trust humans, and his second-in-command, Koba (Toby Kebbell), outright hates them. Thus, these two communities of survivors are forced to confront each other and come to terms with whether they can coexist. Each community defines their identity on the basis of species. However, when apes can talk and function as intelligently as humans, such sharp definitions inevitably break down.

Each community distrusts the other. The ape community remembers their years of captivity at the hands of humans, and the humans think the apes nothing more than vicious animals. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes wisely understands how humans are quick to distrust anyone different than themselves and how community is defined through exclusion, through the identity of an other who is barred from belonging. Dreyfus and his fellow colony survivors cannot conceive of the apes as anything more than animals, and thus, any bridge of peace between them has an impossible psychological barrier to hurdle. As well, Koba and his fellow malcontent apes are convinced that apes are superior to humans, that evil is a purely human phenomenon. Only Caesar and Malcolm are ably to see past their species-lines and understand each other as something worthy of kinship. Since the majority of the apes and humans are incapable of viewing each other as possible members of their community, peace cannot prevail. War is inevitable.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes also gets at some interesting commentary on technology’s capacity to enable destruction. While evolved past natural levels, the apes don’t use machinery. They live in wooden homes and use spears and nets as tools. The humans still live in the city and use fuel to power their homes. They brandish guns and drive cars. The humans’ goal is to restart the power plant to allow more power into their colony. Malcolm tries to convince Caesar that the power will give them lights and other amenities that make life better, but Koba rightly argues that the power would also give the humans access to greater weapons. It would allow them to communicate with humans in other cities, consolidate their forces, and reestablish their dominance on the earth. Technology can help society, but it can also sew the seeds of its destruction. It’s interesting that Koba’s true descent into evil is marked by his acquiring a machine gun, similar to how the hominid’s evolution in 2001: A Space Odyssey is signalled by its use of a bone as a weapon. Only once he embraces the human technology of destruction does he take that last step into darkness. Conversely, as Malcolm and his group grow closer to Caesar they start to give up various human tools. Chiefly, they no longer use guns.

All of this commentary is possibly only because the humans are more fully developed characters than in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Part of this is the proper proportion of focus given to them. While Malcolm and his small band, including his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and partner (Keri Russell), are important to the plot, they’re also clearly the secondary focus to the apes. However, their agency does drive the film forward and their perspectives change throughout the film. They don’t exist purely to reflect back on the apes. Even Caesar is explored in greater depth this time round. His many virtues are demonstrated, but so is his shortsightedness and propensity to trust fellow apes purely on the virtue of their species. There are many touching moments throughout, mostly given their power through Michael Giacchino’s excellent score. If there’s one MVP in the film’s cast and crew, it’s Giacchino. Without his score, the film would have little of its emotional impact.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ missteps are familiar to most modern blockbusters. It has nothing for its female characters to do other than support their men. Apparently Judy Greer plays Caesar’s wife, Cornelia, but clearly the filmmakers had nothing for such a dependable actress to do other than cradle her CGI baby to her chest. The ending succumbs to the temptations of CGI destruction. It’s as if the filmmakers thought the thrilling battle between apes and humans was not enough of a climax, and that destruction of a larger scale was necessary to punctuate the end of the film.

As well, like last year’s Star Trek Into Darkness, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes wants to have emotional death scenes without committing to death as a finite thing. Modern blockbusters are too scared to kill off characters, lest their departure threaten the bankability of the franchise. As Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a part of a modern franchise, sadly the franchise’s interests take precedent over the narrative demands of the single entry. There’s also a general dourness to the whole enterprise that occasionally weighs the film down in self-seriousness. Hopefully the next Planet of the Apes film will learn to incorporate some of the bizarre humour that helped define the original series.

There is no doubt Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a huge improvement over its predecessor. I’m still hesitant to join the online chorus and proclaim it the year’s most riveting blockbuster (I’m convinced the majority of filmgoers have forgotten that Edge of Tomorrow ever existed, or simply never saw it). However, it is a solid film that demonstrates that a lacklustre first entry doesn’t necessarily doom a franchise.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, USA)

Directed by Rupert Wyatt; written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver based off a premise suggested by Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle; starring James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, David Oyelowo, Tom Felton, and Andy Serkis.

4 out of 10

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014, USA)

Directed by Matt Reeves; written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver based off a premise suggested by Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle; starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Gary Oldman.

7 out of 10