I'll say this straight out. 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' is the best summer movie thus far and the first great blockbuster of the year. If there's another one coming, which is far from certain, it'll have to do a lot to top this. It's the rare sort of genre movie that deserves to transcend its genre and be seen as a film, pure and simple.
I warmed up for it by watching a couple of the seven films that preceded it in this series. I wanted to see 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' first, because this is a direct sequel to that film which rebooted the franchise in 2011. While this stands alone capably, I'd highly recommend watching these as a pair. It's also been forever since I've seen the 1968 original with Charlton Heston, so I went back to that too. It's still a decent film with one of the all time great movie twists, but I was shocked to realise how sparse it all was and how much it played as an analogy more than a drama.
Even though that twist can't be redone, this eighth movie in the series is surely the best thus far. It may well remain the best too, because its timeframe is a particularly important one to the overarching story and the depth that it manages to explore may not be reachable in the inevitable next entry, tentatively due in 2016.
'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' was a good film but far from a great one, because there were a number of flaws that couldn't be overlooked. There were a few plot conveniences here and there and various characters were notably underwritten, but most obviously the visual effects weren't quite right. The CGI work was amazing, to be sure, but it also looked like amazing CGI work rather than reality, which built a barrier.
'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' does not have that problem. From the opening scenes amidst the giant redwoods outside of San Francisco, it looks like we're watching real apes, lots of real apes, hunting elk with spears and teaming up to take down a bear. I laughed during the end credits because I thought that the Americans had finally beaten Weta Digital at their own game, only to find that they'd outsourced the work to, oh hey, Weta Digital. As we move on, to inevitably pit apes against men, I never felt that the effects work slipped. These apes may have picked up how to fire automatic weapons pretty damn quick, but I never failed to buy that they could do it.
While the effects work was truly stunning, what impressed me the most was how unlike a blockbuster this blockbuster was. There were decisions taken that benefit the film to no small degree but which make it feel very different to everything around it.
Most obviously, the story had real depth. Sure, we know that the apes are going to have at least some speech because they had it by the end of the first film. We know that mankind is going to experience a disaster of biblical proportions because that was set up in the last picture too. Of course, we know that the apes are going to meet and clash with men because all the original movies were set centuries after this. What we don't know is how it's all going to happen and the script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who co-wrote the previous film together, and Mark Bomback, who is new here, sets up a number of different possibilities and we're kept guessing as to how it will all play out and who will live through it.
While there are clearly good guys in this film, there are no bad guys, not really, and that's refreshing. Every one of the characters who does something bad, triggering or escalating a situation, even deliberately, does so for the best of intentions. The closest we get to a villain is Carver, the man who shoots an ape dead as soon the two species first meet in the forest. As bigoted as we discover he is, he's genuinely scared. Koba, the ape who sees this sort of thing as inevitable, has such strong feelings because human beings locked him in a cage and experimented on him in the first film. Even Dreyfus, the ostensible leader of the San Francisco survivors, does what he does because he's driven to help the remnants of the human race claw back their world after the simian flu kills all but 1 in 150.
Of course, the heroes of the story are clearer cut. In the ten years since the first film, Caesar has retained his status as the leader of the apes through building a strong community in the forest. He's older and greyer with two sons, one grown and one newborn. Beyond being the obvious connection between the races, he's the grounding for the film because its themes are his themes, universal ones of home, trust and family. His equivalent on the other side is Malcolm, a man who shares those themes personally. The two of them find a tentative peace, albeit a very tense and shaky one while hotheads on both sides threaten, however inadvertently or deliberately, to break it.
How this all progresses is somewhat Shakespearean in nature, not only because there are so many dramatic speeches, thankfully none of which outstay their welcome, but because the very name of Caesar becomes an appropriate choice. The motivations here are very familiar. I should also underline that while there is indeed bluff and bluster, moaning and manouevering, this is not a noisy picture. Matt Reeves, who came to this film from 'Cloverfield' and 'Let Me In', the American remake of 'Let the Right One In', has obviously been studying at the school of Scorsese because he knows exactly when to stop the noise entirely and underline pivotal scenes with silence. It's very refreshing to see that in a film that's expected to earn money.
There are also a number of shots that are reminiscent of art films rather than commercial blockbusters. There's an amazing one on the top of a tank where we watch a small battle amidst the chaos of a much larger one, magnificently highlighted by the top of the tank revolving slowly so that we see everything in panorama. Another wonderful shot has the camera follow Malcolm as he tries to escape a building, through many twists and turns as he recoils from explosions and avoids capture. It's great choreography.
The lighting is less obvious but just as pristine. There are many dark scenes here, as you might expect from a film that spends most of its time in a forest lit by fire or a city trying to restore its power, but we're never tasked to strain ourselves to figure out what's going on. However dark the scene, we can see exactly what we need to because the lighting crew do their jobs with aplomb.
Last but not least, the acting is impeccable, especially from the leads. I remember when Peter Jackson had to lobby the Academy to allow Andy Serkis to be nominated for playing a role entirely through motion capture. If he instilled character into Gollum, he breathes life into Caesar, a treat of a part for an actor, even if we never get to see him under the fur. His eyes and face are magnificently expressive and that's due to him far more than it is the effects guys who made sure he looked like an ape. Most actors aren't able to get this much emotion over even when not buried behind heavy make up and visual effects.
Gary Oldman, by far the biggest name in the film, is third credited as Dreyfus, and he brings due gravitas to his speeches. He's definitely a supporting character, but he still gets more strong moments than he's had in some entire features as a lead. Jason Clarke is the name I didn't know, because he hasn't stayed with me from the films he's been in. Malcolm is the most passive of the main characters but he's still strong and this may well be the film that prompts me to remember Clarke in the future.
I'd love to throw out the problems with this film in the holy name of Balance but, based on one viewing at the drive-in, I just didn't see any. Perhaps the sheer numbers don't compute, but they're believable in the context of the previous film where they were a bigger problem. I could see a couple of arguments being put to quibble with some of the underlying logic of this world, so soon after the near annihilation of the species, but they'd have to be fought for.
'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' was the first BluRay I ever bought as a deliberate act. The few we have tend to be gifts or raffle wins but I'll certainly be buying 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' when it comes out so that I can watch afresh at home and see if it stands up to the level to which it's currently raised in my mind. If you've avoided this reboot of an old beloved, if often cheesy, series, don't avoid it any more. This is magnificent filmmaking and, of course, eight isn't enough.