You’ve probably heard – possibly from several screening rooms away – that the Transformers are back. The robots in disguise have restored their particular strain of Bayhem to the silver screen in recent weeks and, like all good hypocrites, the DragonDark team have been cracking jokes at the expense of Hasbro’s finest despite failing to see the flick (and having no intention of rectifying this state of affairs in the near future – in the unlikely event that anyone is holding their breath for a DragonDark review, please exhale for the sake of our collective conscience). “Nobody cares about the humans in those movies!” has been our familiar war-cry, and it’s a stick we’ve used to beat Bay with mercilessly. No doubt he dries his eyes on newspaper clippings of Age of Extinction’s $300m opening weekend.
We stand by our point though – surely during even the most senseless months of the silly season, when only the most inane, mind-in-neutral blockbuster drivel will do (and we say this without a hint of judgment, having enjoyed many a brain-donor blockbuster), we need to care about at least some of the human characters, our supposed eyes and ears throughout a two-hour journey into another world.
At least, we did stand by our point, until we watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. This superb sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes has been a long time coming, and it’s been well worth the wait – but there’s no denying that that has nothing to do with the people-shaped protagonists. The casting is fine – Gary Oldman is reliable as ever (if underused), Jason Clarke is warm and charismatic enough in an dry-run for his future stint as John Connor, the presence of Keri Russell is always welcome to us (though we’d enjoy it even more if she was actually given something of any consequence to do), and Fringe’s Kirk Acevedo is enjoyably hateful in a supporting role. They’re all perfectly fine. Adequate. Hell, we’ll even say they’re good. Pick a term of faint praise at your leisure, is what we’re saying. It’s the hairy co-stars of the fresh-faced thesps that are a class apart – in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the simians are the superstars. We’re not aware if there is anything in the Academy rulebook that says a CG-animated chimpanzee cannot be nominated for an acting Oscar, but this feels like a brave new world of blockbuster filmmaking regardless. Don’t worry though Congo, DragonDark still loves you.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place some ten years after the uprising that began on the Golden Gate Bridge at the end of Rise. With the human population all but wiped out by the lethal ‘simian flu’ engineered in that movie as a potential Alzheimer’s cure, those who remain live in squalor in the ruined remnants of once proud cities. In our alternative 2026 Ceasar is firmly established as the king of swingers, leading his loyal and intelligent primate subjects (who include veterans from the previous stint such as embittered bonobo Koba, chest-beating gorilla Buck and wise orang-utan Maurice) to a respectful and peaceful life in the Californian woodland.
With much of the opening third of the movie following these hairy heroes as we see them live off the land and communicate through sign language, it’s tribute to the skill of incoming director Matt Reeves that our attention never wanders. We’re fascinated by this monkey magic, completely absorbed by Ceasar’s family dynamic as he tends for his wife and infant son and clashes with his string-willed teenage offspring Blue Eyes, and Reeves’ gentle and respectful handling of his camera treats the scenes like the greatest Attenborough documentary we never saw. All of which almost makes it a disappointment when the humans inevitably trample into ape territory, and a wholly unavoidable conflict ensues.
Almost a disappointment. Because no conflict would mean no epic battle scenes, and no fist-pumping sights of warrior apes on horseback. There will be no more monkeying around – the Planet of the Apes franchise is back, baby, and it’s every bit as dark as the previous Conquest.
Picking a side for this inter-species slugfest is tricky; returning screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (now joined by Mark Bomback, who can now consider himself redeemed for misfires such as The Wolverine and the Total Recall remake) make it tough to rescind sympathy for the simians. With Ceasar the jungle VIP it was only a matter of time until, contrary to his own wishes, the apes began to be like you (ooh-ooh), and unsurprisingly for a series that’s never been shy of an allegory, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes packs plenty of chin-scratching amidst the entertainment. Charlton Heston will be spinning revolutions in his grave at the overt anti-firearm themes throughout, but we’re also left to ponder if apes aren’t actually better at this whole humanity lark than us. Ceasar seemingly has a far greater hold and respect over his people than human de facto leader Malcolm, and while easily agitated, the apes seemingly hold more control over their animal instincts. Despite the simian flu being a man-made virus many human characters hold a bigotry against their theoretically-devolved rivals, and even the bad behaviour of any antagonistic apes is taught by their former human overlords – monkey see, monkey do indeed. Don’t panic though, thrillseekers – there is excitement aplenty throughout the two hour-plus running time, ensuring that the flick loses none of its appeal as a Friday night summer blockbuster.
Movies like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes make a mockery of lazy assertions that Hollywood is finished, bringing us traditional thrills and spills as well as advancing the art of modern filmmaking. Sure, it contains bags of CGI but it’s used as a tool to aid the storytelling process rather than replace it, and the motion capture performances of Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell are worth the price of admission alone; in addition to an astonishing amount of emoting and Shakespearean character dynamics, the occasional scenes of primate-on-primate punch-ups top any of the heavy metal prize fights served up in that aforementioned other franchise (and, dare we say it, the Iron Man trilogy). This is a downbeat new Dawn with no neat resolutions at the end, and it’s quite possibly the end of the world as we know it. If the result of the apeocalypse is more movies of this standard, however, then we feel fine.