“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
Monkey See, Monkey Makes a Sequel
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
In a perfect circumstance, we would take all the politicians, seat them at little desks in a cute kindergarten classroom, and make them watch director Matt Reeves’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Graham crackers and milk would be served. No popcorn or cheese nachos. Ok…maybe gummy bears. The hope is that the allegory, a politically savvy heir to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” would teach them something about what the sane folks on this Earth are trying to accomplish. I’m hoping this review prompts that tutorial.
While we wait for said renaissance, we good citizens, both patrician and plebeian alike, can comfort ourselves in the lessons of peace and general humanism taught by this very engaging film’s apes and a smattering of Homo sapiens who get it. As there’s more than a skosh of violence to impress just what we naked apes are trying to avoid, Mom and Pop might want to abide by the PG-13 directive. Otherwise, it’s all part and parcel of the film’s haunting panoply. Superb art direction helps etch the not so brave world presented.
It is the near future, and owing to some simian virus that leaked out of a test tube and killed most of the world’s populace, we’re not sure if there are any survivors besides the small community of genetically immune folks who are making do in San Francisco. Led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a post-apocalyptic, self-styled Medici, their next step to recovery entails hiking into the Muir Woods and reconnecting a disabled power station to the dam. There’s only one problem…well, actually three in Realtors® parlance.
Location, location, location. That’s where the smart monkeys live…in general harmony, might I add, led by Caesar, their alpha ape personified. Winningly portrayed by Andy Serkis, who’s somewhere inside that costume, he is the anthropoid answer to the philosopher king. Honest, he aspires to no greater office, and is hence able to focus entirely on the job at hand: the commonweal of the constituency that has entrusted him.
Of course, like his namesake, he’s got his problems: Namely, an ape or two with either an axe to grind or a desire for a bit more power. Playing the proverbial right-hand man, the scheming prime minister, if you will, is Koba, a heretofore loyal yet rather dyspeptic sort, acted by Toby Kebell. Not to excuse him, mind you, but we’ll be told of his reasons.
Mixing several instructive parables, with strong symbolic allusion to the European conquest of the New World, it is obvious that these two civilizations are about to clash. We hope that calmer heads prevail, but speculate that the Vegas odds are against it.
While the albeit competent Dreyfus is decidedly hawkish, in a reverse of the power structure back in Monkey Town, it’s his point man, Malcolm, sympathetically depicted by Jason Clarke, who always first considers the enlightened, nonviolent route.
Smaller melodramas in each camp furnish the subplots, the everyday joys and turmoil that inform our humanity, so to speak. Combine all these elements and therein lies the philosophical essence of what several generations of screenwriters have been trying to impart ever since Pierre Boule’s 1963 novel inspired the first “Planet of the Apes” (1968). In short, beyond appearances, what does it really mean to be human?
The great surprise is that for all the opportunities to lapse into a platitudinal preachiness, especially when you consider that the gist of the message has had seven previous iterations, there is a novel freshness here. The characterizations among the apes, which include gorillas and at least one scholarly orangutan who forms a bond of learning with Malcolm’s son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), become as real to us as the animals who spoke from the pages of the Golden Books® we pored over in childhood.
Marvelous special effects heighten the drama. Whether the CGI is helping sculpt personages (or is it apenages?), contrasting the fragility of the machine world with haunting forest landscapes or depicting the brutality of some pretty heavy battle scenes, it is always to complement, not upstage. For good measure, and to please a sentimental sense, parallels are made between Caesar and Malcolm’s quests for domestic tranquility.
Of course a modicum of open-mindedness is suggested. I’m reminded of a dorm mate at Olde Ivy Film Criticism College who shunned cartoons because, “C’mon, how could Porky Pig talk?” But that’s the point. If we aspire to a greater civilization, a childlike trust is required of all parties…an ability to embrace wisdom no matter from what race or creed it emanates. In its dedicated effort to proffer said ideal with entertaining panache, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” doesn’t monkey around.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation release directed by Matt Reeves and stars Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke and Keri Russell. Running time: 130 minutes