Very few people were especially looking forward to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the second attempt at rebooting a franchise that seemed to have long since run its course (for more on that subject, see my Planet of the Apes retrospective). But director Rupert Wyatt and his team surprised everyone by making the most all-around likable movie of the series. Rise didn’t attempt any of the headier social commentary of the original film or its sequels, but its focus on character-driven storytelling, as well as its careful balance of tension and rousing payoff, managed to turn an ostensible doomsday scenario into an uplifting crowd-pleaser. Of course, that overall upbeat feeling was largely possible because the film focused on the triumphant rebellion of sympathetic ape protagonist Caesar, leaving the actual end of human civilization to a brief epilogue during the credits. It was a smart move, but it all-but-ensured that any sequel was going to be a significantly bleaker affair. And sure enough, this summer’s much-anticipated Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, helmed by director Matt Reeves, has turned out to be a much darker film that its immediate predecessor. This isn’t a bad thing in all ways, and the film ultimately builds to a final act that’s more than exciting and moving enough to warrant a recommendation. But the pitch-perfect balance of light and dark moments that made Rise of the Planet of the Apes so riveting is sorely missing here, and the film’s unrelenting bleakness too often feels at odds with the story it’s trying to tell.
Having said that, I’ll give the film this: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes executes its story far more gracefully than the film it remakes. This is damning with extremely faint praise, however, as the film it’s remaking turns out to be Beneath the Apes, the barely competent fourth sequel that finally drew the original series to a puttering close in 1973. Like that film, Dawn picks up years after a disaster that wipes out most of humanity, and it follows a small community of apes as they try to forge a society in the wilderness. As with Battle, much of the drama in Dawn comes from ape-leader Caesar’s attempts at maintaining peace after a group of potentially dangerous humans disrupts the ape community’s delicate balance. Both films also pit their version of Caesar against a duplicitous “bad” ape who would rather wage war on the humans than maintain the safety of his own people. Hell, the two films even open with ape children in a makeshift school learning the community’s central commandment, “Ape Not Kill Ape,” a noble sentiment that of course proves impossible to uphold. I’m not entirely sure why the filmmakers were committed to paying homage to a film that almost nobody remembers (or wants to remember), as I’m pretty sure this would be one occasion where they could have ignored the franchise’s mythological “canon” and absolutely nobody would have complained. But if they were hoping to look good by comparison, mission accomplished, because Dawn is everything that Battle wasn’t – it treats its themes with stern gravity, it avoids unintentional silliness, and it has the budget and scope to play out the conflict on an almost Biblical scale. In other words, it fits a post-Dark Knight world’s version of a “good” summer blockbuster – a solemn epic with pretensions towards larger social commentary, even if that solemn epic features talking warrior monkeys fighting on horseback.
On one level, I admire how earnestly the filmmakers have tried to imbue the film with so much gravity and sensitivity. Dawn moves the franchise squarely back into the realm of political allegory, but it does so without the blunt sermonizing of the ’70s films. If the apes were abused animals in the last film, here they’re a culture that’s about on equal footing with the surviving humans. The two cultures teeter on the brink of war, not because one is in the wrong, but rather because both are so terrified of losing the fragile space they call a home that anyone outside the community seems like a potential threat. It’s of course tempting to read this as a metaphor for the current conflict in Israel and Palestine, but the metaphor is broad enough to encompass any situation where fear and mistrust endanger cross-cultural understanding. Many of the film’s best moments capture the subtle ways that this fear infects fledgling attempts by ape and human characters to form tentative relationships – every tentative moment of connection is just a small misunderstanding away from violent disaster.
Yet that emphasis on weighty social commentary also leads to a near-constant morose tone that often works against the drama. The film opens with scenes depicting the peaceful utopia that the apes have created. One might think these scenes are supposed to show us the beautiful world the apes start with so that the threat of its destruction has emotional heft. Yet director Matt Reeves treats these would-be lighter sequences with the same hushed gloominess that he applies to the later epic battle scenes. The result severely deadens the dramatic impact of the narrative – we intellectually understand that the apes don’t want to lose their home, but nothing in the film’s audio-visual design tells us that we should care.
This problem is evident from the very first scene. The film starts with a close-up of Caesar’s glaring eyes. The camera gradually zooms out to reveal a full band of apes, clad with spears and battle makeup. Caesar raises his hand, pauses, and then motions downwards, ordering his apes to leap into action. But in the next shot, we discover that the apes are not about to fight a battle – they’re partaking in an elk hunt. It seems like this should read as a fake-out gag, one that sets the audience up for an epic war scene and then turns around with a more upbeat hunting sequence (in the grand tradition of Dances with Wolves and Last of the Mohicans). In theory, this is a scene that would show us the apes at their happiest, working together for a common goal of feeding the community. But because Reeves shoots the scene as though it were itself a grim battle, the gag doesn’t land and the larger dramatic point doesn’t register. Desaturated colors cast a grey pallor over the forest while Michael Giacchino’s furious dissonant music makes the sequence seem like the climax from a brutal horror movie. This tonal disconnect persists throughout the film’s first act, and speaking for myself at least, it prevents a full emotional investment in these characters and their plight.
It doesn’t help that Andy Serkins’ Caesar, the central focus of the last film, is given a comparatively reduced role in the first half of the film. He’s still technically the main character, but the film introduces so many new characters and side conflicts that Caesar often feels like a supporting character in his own film. This all comes from good intentions – Reeves is clearly trying to build a more three-dimensional world – but he spends so much time trying to build audience-interest in characters that don’t have time for proper development that he frequently sidelines the one character we’re already inclined to like. This is to say nothing of the film’s cartoonishly evil ape villain, Koba, whose tragic disfigurement in the last film is now treated as a visual signifier of his inherent evilness. He’s about as three-dimensional as The Lion King‘s Scar, and he doesn’t have the benefit of Jeremy Irons’ silky voice.
Having said that, once the film does shift into full-on grand tragedy, it grows markedly more gripping. Reeves struggles when he’s expected to deliver small moments of joy or humor, but he’s more than adept at handling grand spectacle. The last act features the most spectacular action set-pieces the series has produced to date (not that the bar was especially high on this front). It helps that [vague spoiler alert] Caesar finally steps back into the spotlight and takes control of the story in the last act, giving Andy Serkins the opportunity to develop the excellent motion-capture performance he began with the last film. A final showdown atop a collapsing tower is particularly riveting, and it brings enough emotional gravitas to the proceedings that it nearly redeems the film’s dour opening half.
The film is overall a worthy follow-up to its excellent predecessor, and most of its flaws are flaws of ambition and noble intentions. But I can’t help but wonder what the film would have looked like if Rupert Wyatt had stayed in the director’s chair. Rise of the Planet of the Apes had the potential to be just as dark as this film, but Wyatt was perceptive enough to realize that you need scenes of dazzling ecstasy – golden twilight romps through redwood treetops – if you want the gut-wrenching scenes of brutality to achieve their full impact. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes still manages to pull a few gut-punches of its own, but it’s a bit disheartening to see a reboot that started with such a warm human heart edging closer and closer to the nihilistic misery of the original ’70s films.
Rupert Wyatt is sadly not the only major creative force from Rise who’s missing this time. Patrick Doyle’s score for the last film may have been more mainstream than any other Apes score, but it was a fine example of musical storytelling, a nuanced score that was perfectly in-synch with each subtle beat of the film’s dramatic arc. But Matt Reeves brought along his composer of choice when he assumed the director’s chair, so Dawn now has a score by Michael Giacchino. On paper, he seems like the perfect composer for the assignment – Giacchino is a self-professed fan of Silver Age film music fan, and his experimental music for the hit show Lost often felt like an homage to Goldsmith’s original Apes music. And on the album at least, there are reasons to be impressed with Giacchino’s music. The composer is clearly trying to develop the experimental textures he started with Lost, and the music features some of Giacchino’s most interesting orchestrations in some time. Anybody upset that Doyle took a 180 on the franchise with his contemporary score for the last film may be inclined to celebrate Giacchino’s work here, as he’s clearly trying to move the music back into the avant-garde idiom that defined the ’70s series.
The problem is that Giacchino’s painstaking Goldsmith homage comes at the expense of the actual film playing out in front of him. Goldsmith’s wild and abrasive atonal music was perfect for the 1968 film because it captured the perspective of a misanthrope who has been thrust into an insane world where humanoid apes hunt him like a feral animal. There was no reason for the score to follow a dramatic arc or create sympathy for the characters in the original film because that particular story only required different shades of terror and confusion. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, however, does not take place on an alien planet, and it features characters we’re supposed to care about. Every time Giacchino lays down dissonant brass clusters or 12-tone xylophone scales over otherwise innocuous scenes, it sounds like a different movie’s score has invaded the film. At best, it creates unnecessary emotional distance from the characters – at worst, it’s actively distracting.
I suppose I should acknowledge one exception, which is the tender “theme” Giacchino has written for – well for essentially every would-be emotional scene in the film. The problem is that it’s less a theme than a series of drippy pop chords played whole note-by-whole note on the piano; it almost sounds as though somebody laid down chords for a melody and then forgot to write the actual melody. It’s the sort of music I associate with the Hallmark movie of the week style of scoring, and it’s unfortunately becoming a staple of Giacchino’s music. But even if we put my stylistic preferences aside, the larger problem is that this music gets repeated without any discernible variation over nearly every vaguely touching or peaceful scene in the film. Usually the benefit of writing something so simple is that the composer can more easily develop and adapt the music to the changing needs of the film. Here, unfortunately, thematic development is largely lacking even when the character relationships are developing and changing. As a result, scenes where characters are quietly going about their daily routines don’t feel any more or less urgent than scenes where characters are saving each others’ lives or mourning the deaths of loved ones.
And while the rest of the score is more interesting from a compositional perspective, it all still suffers from the same lack of thematic or dramatic development; the music from that opening elk hunt is pitched at just about the same urgent ferocity as the music from the actual climactic battles. It’s not bad enough to ruin the film’s best scenes, but it adds nothing to our understanding of the characters and their developing inner lives.
The score, in other words, is one of many dour formal elements that keeps the film from reaching its full dramatic potential. The film itself still has enough going for it to make it one of the best films of the series – the script is sensitively written, the acting is superb, and the spectacle in the third act reaches the apocalyptic proportions that other Apes films have only hinted at. But the score might actually be the series’ low-point. For all of its good intentions, it’s the only Apes score that offers neither emotional insight nor daring counterpoint to the film it’s meant to be supporting. Instead, it gives us fan-service and throwbacks to earlier films, ignoring the possibility that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has its own story to tell.