Watching the Burton Apes alongside 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the new Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a real lesson in the dos and don’ts of a successful reboot. Instead of returning to the familiar narrative of the original film and adding in a few surface flourishes (the Amazing Spider-Man approach, in other words), the new Apes films take a decidedly long view. It’s not enough to merely revisit the planet where apes evolved from man; they’re going to lay out, in detail, how such a thing could happen, starting in the present day.
There are clever little in-jokes for Apes fans peppered throughout the new films (particularly the first one): an ape nicknamed “Bright Eyes” (Heston’s nickname in the original), a shot of protagonist Caesar playing with a Statue of Liberty doll, a recreation of Heston’s notorious “damned dirty ape” line. And some of the story beats mirror the origin story of the initial series; there are echoes of the fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in Rise, and of Battle in Dawn. But these flashes of nostalgia and familiarity aren’t expected to carry the new films — nor should they. They manage to accomplish what few reboots have: to tell an origin story that honors the original work and pleases the superfans, while working as involving, compelling cinema, on their own terms and free of all other associations.
Rise was a nice surprise, a would-be August throwaway that invigorated a dormant series; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is, if anything, an even better film, more thoughtful and emotionally potent while still delivering the summer-movie goods. Set ten years after Rise, it picks up that film’s thread of the “Simian Flu,” a Contagion-like worldwide outbreak that leaves one in 500 humans alive, in a society that’s basically collapsed. The apes, meanwhile, remain in hiding in the redwood forest, drilling for battle and building their own civilization — until a band of human survivors wanders in.
One of Rise’s biggest shocks was that it focused not on human lead James Franco (and thank God he’s not back for this one — talk about a comically inept performance) but on Caesar, the intelligent chimpanzee played, via remarkable motion capture technology, by Lord of the Rings’ Andy Serkis. Dawn follows that pattern, and Serkis rises to the occasion, crafting a delicate performance of genuine intelligence and pathos.
Matt Reeves has proven himself a capable craftsman before, but little in his previous work suggests the skill on display here (aside from the presence of Keri Russell in a major role — all roads lead by to Felicity, you guys). His filmmaking is confident and sure-handed; the picture moves briskly, but it’s not in a big hurry either, and Reeves slows the pace for emotional moments (Caesar and his wife, Russell and her sorta-stepson) of real value. Unlike your typical blockbuster purveyor — insert obligatory Michael Bay shot here — Reeves understands the value of varying the tempo, so that the violence comes in sudden, terrible bursts, and is all the more devastating.
The original Apes novel and films were refugees from an earlier time, where science fiction wasn’t merely a subgenre of action, but a vehicle social commentary and compelling ideas. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film with much to say — the rich subtext delves into the nature of warfare (a close-up on Caesar’s face in a moment of victory shows not triumph, but regret), leadership (“Fear makes others follow,” Caesar notes), the difficulty of compromise (cooperation between species is possible, were it not for the zealots of both camps), racism and xenophobia (“You telling me you don’t get sick to your stomach at the sight of them?”), and even gun control. That a mainstream movie can have that much on its mind, and still give us the image of an ape, riding a horse, firing a machine gun in each hand while laughing maniacally? Well, friends, that is a summer cinema miracle.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is out Friday in wide release.