By Brian Lafferty
July 12, 2014 – I highly doubt the makers of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes read my less-than-enthusiastic review of the first film three years ago. Although the screenplay was chillingly effective as a cautionary tale, Rise of the Planet if the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011) could have used a lot more polished effects work considering the high human-to-ape ratio.
Nevertheless, I looked forward to this sequel. The director is Matt Reeves, who is best known for making Cloverfield (2008) and Let Me In (2010). Of his small directorial output, I’ve only seen the latter, but this must be said: any director who can remake a seemingly "untouchable" film like Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008), retain the key ingredients that made the original successful - namely the haunting performances of the child actors, the icy dark photography, and unnerving violence – and at the same time make it his own, is one I will watch with little hesitation.
Writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback waste little time establishing the premise: before even five minutes pass, they reveal through news footage and graphics humanity's near extinction from the retrovirus unleashed at the last film’s end. The lucky few survivors, at least those on screen, make their home in the dilapidated San Francisco. Desperately seeking out other possible survivors, they need power. The problem is the dam necessary to restore it is tucked away in a forest populated with evolved apes whose near-human intelligence is matched by their brute strength. Their leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis), reluctantly allows them access despite the vehement protests of human-hating ape Koba (Tony Kebbell), who plots a coup and an attack on the hopelessly outmatched refugees.
The vast forest, steeped in menacing deep green and covered by a canopy of mist and overcast skies, is both a thing of natural beauty and dark terror. San Francisco, a vibrant, bustling city where positivity reigns everywhere you walk, is in this dystopian future a dreary wasteland of plant-covered buildings ready to crumble.
In Rise, the motion capture effects in the first film never blended well alongside the human actors. That issue is now rectified. Cinematographer Michael Seresin - longtime collaborator with director Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Fame, Angel Heart) – applies many different camera heights, distances, and takes for a desired illusory effect. Each shot focusing on a human contains just enough of the apes to give the illusion that the apes are as real as their human counterparts. The same is true whenever the apes are the visual and emotional focus in a scene and the actors just enough in the frame. The camera constantly moves at a slow, barely-noticeable pace to keep the kinetic energy flowing off the screen and ward off any inclination to nitpick any potential flaws in the effects.
The intricacies of the effects coupled with the camerawork suspend disbelief like few effects-driven films can. These apes don’t merely look as real as their human counterparts: they are as real. The effects team could have just created them out of a computer. But performance capture, for this film, is the correct choice. The movements are natural and real, but it’s the facial expressions that are key to establishing these characters as formidable, intelligent creatures. I could cite at least three in great detail, but I need only mention Caesar. He always has a profound, commanding scowl that instills in his subordinates a strong sense of authority. He's like that high school teacher that every student – even chronic troublemakers - listens to with utmost deference.
I go into so much of this detail not because of how impressive these effects are. They bring about an emotional resonance that powers the film from beginning to end. The acting is superb for a summer blockbuster, especially considering its cast. The lead, Jason Clarke, has up to this point been known for supporting roles in Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, and White House Down. After this one, he’s a step closer to being a bankable star. Gary Oldman has precious few minutes of screen time as the embattled leader of the refugees. The rest of the cast reads like a Who's Who of cult television stars. Keri Russell (Felicity, The Americans) plays a former CDC worker still reeling from her daughter's death. Her motherly demeanor keeps everyone sane and hopeful for the future. Everyone that is except Carver, played by Kirk Acevedo (Fringe), a real jerk who constantly jeopardizes the mission, but is needed because he's the only one who knows the dam well.
The special effects in Rise if the Planet of the Apes broke that film. This time they make it. It never ceases to amaze me how much and how fast effects technology can change for the better. For every few films that leave me thinking special effects are no longer special, along comes one like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I can't say with certainty anything is possible, but if motion capture effects in a live action film can be thoroughly convincing with the proper camerawork and technology, there's a lot of unexplored territory in the special effects field waiting to be mined.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is now playing in general release.
A 20th Century Fox release. Director: Matt Reeves. Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, based on the novel “La Planète des Singes” by Pierre Boulle. Original Music: Michael Giacchino. Cinematography: Michael Seresin. Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Kirk Acevedo. 130 minutes. Rated PG-13.