Narrative Monotony Dawns In Middling "Apes" Sequel

2011’s “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” was familiar in its imperfections, spackled with the same wooden dialogue and thinly drawn human characters that have sunk countless summer blockbusters. But buoyed by ambition and innovation, it kept itself afloat by carving out an arguably historical niche. Firstly, it coolly resurrected a classic movie franchise that was thought to be dead and buried after a failed reboot just 10 years prior. More impressively, it was an astounding technological achievement, marking the first instance of a computer-generated character carrying a live action film on its back.

Actor Andy Serkis effectively originated the art of motion capture performance as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings” films, and again as the title character in Jackson’s “King Kong.” But in hindsight, those characters were mere sideshows in their respective films, serving as warm-up acts for the actor’s turn as Caesar, the lead ape in “Rise.” It was as emotionally resonant as any performance that year, an unseen, CGI-aided Serkis brilliantly transforming from baby ape to super-smart friend of the humans to self-aware leader of an ape uprising.

Ironically, that masterful arc is why its sequel, “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes,” doesn’t quite work. Caesar’s storyline was mostly complete at the end of “Rise,” meaning “Dawn” has nowhere to go. 10 years on, Caesar’s community has thrived amongst the Redwoods of northern California. The world’s human population has waned – because of the Simian Flu, induced by the same anti-Alzheimers drug that was tested on Caesar’s ilk in “Rise” – and man hasn’t crossed paths with ape in years.

Consequently, Matt Reeves’ film has little to do but reverse Caesar’s increasing distrust of humans, a bite-size piece of character development that doesn’t occur on screen, but between the two films. The result is a special effects driven, oft-subtitled character piece dotted with typically weightless action scenes, one whose title remains a misnomer – part of a city overrun by a few hundred apes doesn’t come close to constituting a planet – ending up as even more of a tease than its origin-minded predecessor. It’s “middle film syndrome” in its most natural state, a mood piece marooned between starting point and finish line with little story to tell. Just lots of running.

Thankfully, Reeves (“Cloverfield”) and company are savvy enough to dress up the pic’s hollow screenplay with plenty of memorable visuals. The apes are as well realized as ever, reaching new levels of photo-realness and, once again, overwhelming their human counterparts. Putting aside the immense skills of the pic’s CGI artists, Serkis has mastered the physicality of motion capture, working on a different level here than ever before. The nuances of his performance are startling, imbuing Caesar with more humanity than most entire films are afforded. As a wounded Caesar watches video of himself as an infant, in the care of his former human guardian (James Franco, reprising his role via unused footage), it’s hard not to be rattled.

Whereas Franco played the only remotely interesting human character in the original film, “Dawn” is a mixed bag on the homo sapiens front. None are as clumsily written, but all are equally underwritten, serving as little more than token antagonists – at the outset, at least. Jason Clarke (“Zero Dark Thirty”), Gary Oldman (“The Dark Knight”), and Keri Russell (“Mission: Impossible III”) lead a small group of survivors in an electricity-less San Francisco, their only hope for power coming in the form of a dam that’s currently under the apes’ rule.

Inevitably, humans betray apes, apes betray humans, humans betray humans, and apes betray apes, with all but the final conflict coming across as perfunctory. The initial utopian qualities of the ape community – “Ape No Kill Ape” – and its subsequent fracturing is genuinely compelling, but the half-baked human storylines routinely get in the way. At no point do we care about Clarke’s character, his tearjerker of a backstory, or his introverted son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Oldman’s character is even more useless, having zero impact on the narrative and forcing us to wonder why Oldman is in the film at all. Only one scene involving humans – in which an ape fakes out a duo of gun-toting mercenaries – stands out. It’s immaculately staged and shot, and liable to creep out a majority of viewers.

In the end, it’s a handful of moments between chimps that make “Dawn” worthwhile, with a philosophical exchange between Caesar and his right-hand ape, Koba, making a crater-sized impact. Koba’s thoughts on “human work” are as deeply felt as summer movies get. But apart from a few pensive moments, the picture isn’t especially interested in anything but spectacle, which, of course, it delivers. With expectations firmly in check, “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” makes for fine summer entertainment, but anyone pining for profundity should pass – or rewatch Caesar’s scenes in the previous film.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: July 11, 2014
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns, Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa, Mark Bomback
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Enrique Murciano, Kirk Acevedo
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language)