These apes are impressive computer creations. They are a leap forward in computer graphics and motion capture technology. In the first movie, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, they looked liked CGI models, even though they were robust enough to count as sympathetic characters. Now, just three years later, they have stepped out of the computer and have become complete creatures. They no longer resemble animated pixels. I was fully aware that I could not walk up to Caesar in the first movie and caress his face. He had not reached that level of realism. But in this movie, I am not so sure. Something is nagging at me, telling me that yes, if I were to walk up to Caesar right now and outstretch my hand, I would feel real hair and real skin. And maybe my life would be in real danger. The mastery of computerised abilities these days is not only profound, it is scary.
But the CGI is not the only achievement that strikes me about Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, the sequel to Rise. As I watched the film unfold on an Earth overridden by a disease and left for dead by the majority of the human population, I began to notice how carefully and intricately this new, post-apocalyptic Earth took shape. As skilled as the visual effects people are, the production design team is equally gifted. They have done with this movie what the vfx people did with Rise, and that is create a world that completely envelopes us as the audience. We become part of extinction, of this fight for survival in a world that we should know, but has fallen deep into disrepair and unfamiliarity. The movie takes place in San Francisco — we know this because of Coit Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge and San Fran’s iconic stepped terrain — but the setting is not important. Place this movie in Cairo and it would still work. The Earth has become faceless, just like the humans and apes left inhabiting it. All identity is lost.
This is where the story lays its bed, in the crumbling pride of both races. The humans cannot trust the apes on account that they are apes, and the apes cannot trust the humans on account that humans can never be trusted.
Caesar (Andy Serkis), you will recall from the first movie, has led his family of super smart apes deep into the Californian Redwood forest. There they have built themselves a home — they’ve even set up little kindergarten classes where Maurice (Karin Konoval), the intellectual orang-utan, teaches the young how to read and write. 10 years have passed since the virus, created by James Franco’s character in the first movie, infected all humans and immunised the apes, and now everything looks fit for a zombie invasion.
A relatively large band of human survivors have locked themselves away in a complex piazza in downtown San Fran, and now their last barrel of gas has run out. An expedition team, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his lover Ellie (Keri Russell), and Malcolm’s son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), wanders into the forest in search of a hydroelectric dam. This is their last chance at having power restored. Alas, the dam is right smack in the middle of ape country, and the apes are none too pleased about having human intruders, least of all Koba, the malicious, vengeful chimp who vows allegiance to Caesar with crossed fingers behind his back.
James Franco’s character not only created the virus strain, he also brought Caesar up from infancy and imbued within him many good and decent qualities. This wasn’t so important in the first film, but it is here, especially with war so close to the brink. Caesar has a strong moral centre; he doesn’t like the humans, but he respects them. He can see himself in them and he knows that if he wants his kind to survive, peace must be reached. Koba (Toby Kebbell), on the other hand, sees no peace. He was mistreated by the humans as a test subject, and now all he sees is hate. In another world he’d be Caesar’s strongest, most loyal right-hand man (chimp), but here he is only trouble.
The humans also have troubles of their own. Many among them think the apes are dangerous (I would too if I came across a talking one who knew how to wield a semi-automatic) and want them wiped out. Malcolm, the good man, like the Franco character, has more in common with Caesar than with his own species, and director Matt Reeves does a marvellous job yanking us from side to side — we can never quite pinpoint our allegiances. We are with the apes, and then something happens and we are with the humans. And then back to the apes. And the humans. It goes on like this throughout the duration of the movie, subtly, like a magic trick nobody sees.
There is richness in this movie. Richness of animation. Richness of conflict, drama and danger. And richness of characterisation. More so than Rise, the humans are integral. They are not cutouts. The human leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, solid but under-utilised), wants only what’s best for his kind. Caesar, the leader of the other side, wants the same for his. There is not a single character in this film with inherently bad intentions or ill will. Whatever they’re feeling has been imposed onto them by external forces. We empathise with all of them, even if we don’t sympathise. They are fraught with simple motives, but in a world where sophistication has been stolen away, simplicity is the key to survival.
What impresses me the most about this film though — and its predecessor — is how its writers have thought of a logical and realistic explanation for why the humans have disappeared, why the apes have the knowhow to rule, and how everything doesn’t take place on a silly foreign planet. In the original film, Charlton Heston crash-landed on a faraway planet that was incidentally ruled by humanoid apes that spoke perfect english. It was a satire, and it played like one. This new franchise removes the “humanoid” and rebuilds from the ground up. The new machine works, if you squint hard enough to see the cogs. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is like an illusion. We see one angle on the surface, and it’s good, but there’s an angle we don’t see right away. And then it reveals itself, and the trick is complete.
Best Moment | Any scene involving Caesar. He is a very impressive computerised character.
Worst Moment | The slightly ridiculous climactic fist fight. Between whom, I won’t say.