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Andy Serkis is Ape-Brando

July 17, 2014

I reviewed the last Rise of the Planet of the Apes in my first ever entry on this site. I was a little surprised by the success of that film, and when I started seeing trailers for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I couldn’t help but think that sometimes you just need to let the damned-dirty apes lie. Once again, I was not prepared for the success I was about to witness. Alas, Dawn is excellent. Allow me to wade through a few tangents as I unspool my thoughts on this gem from director Matt Reeves.

Cinephile circles ought to be buzzing about just what it is Andy Serkis will need to do to earn an Academy Award nomination for all of his performance-capture glory. I don’t know if any of the Apes financiers have the desire to push for a Serkis Oscar win (or even nomination), but they had better make up their mind while Serkis still seems to have a stranglehold on performance-capture acting. Maybe they should just credit him as one of the visual effects artists in the next film. Supposedly, the amazing Judy Greer (Arrested Development) played one of the apes in Dawn. I say “supposedly,” because one would never really know, and perhaps that is part of the nebulous issue of how performance-capture translates to actual acting.

While we’re here, quick question… How is that Andy Serkis has cornered the market on portraying primates? Let’s recap his career, shall we? He played King Kong in 2005; Caesar in the last two Apes movies; oh, and let us not forget the role that started it all; Serkis played Gollum a whopping four times in the Lord of the Rings franchise. Why is no one else getting work in these types of roles? It’s not like Serkis is more a specialist than an actor – he’s found time to be in such hits as 13 Going on 30 (2004), and The Prestige (2006) in between his blue-screen outings. Great for Andy… a little strange though.

Interestingly, while Serkis is the go-to-actor for these roles today, the late Roddy McDowall played multiple characters throughout four of the first five Apes movies and starred in the short-lived television spinoff. He was Cornelius, the sympathetic chimp scientist, as well as the initial incarnation of Caesar (Serkis’ character), leader of the ape uprising. I guess it’s one of those things where you’re an ape for life.

Anyway, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up right where Rise left off. Much to my delight, it includes a prologue sequence that makes re-watching Rise unnecessary. About ten years after Rise, humanity is holed up in disparate colonies around the world and scrambling to find new power sources as gasoline is running out. The apes (I’m using “apes” collectively here because chimps, orangutans and gorillas are all living amongst each other like in the original) have developed a sophisticated society and communicate through sign language as well as rudimentary speech and writing.

Humans living near San Francisco (Keri Russell, Jason Clarke and Kodi Smit-McPhee) seek out a dam hoping to use the water power to rebuild their colony (led by Gary Oldman). Man and ape meet, and both sides begin to factionalize over whether or not the other can be trusted. Caesar returns from Rise as the revered leader of the ape settlement. Dawn maintains great tension and unleashes some shocking imagery on its audience as the world moves one step closer to truly becoming “the planet of the apes.”

Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee

Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee

Caesar is portrayed as a Brando-esque Godfather character. He rules with love for his subjects and the power that comes with having the respect of the whole neighborhood. He doesn’t gravitate towards violence, but does what needs to be done to keep the peace. He is magnanimous, and all the other apes seek his approval, for now. He makes a fateful decision at the end of the film, but we’ll have to wait until the next movie to find out if he was truly able to “consolidate the power of the five families” or not. I think the Godfather homages were pitch perfect.

The Godfather is not the only classic film heavily alluded to in Dawn. Matt Reeves has said in interviews that the he wanted to give his own take on the “Dawn of Man” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Reeves’ opening sequence accomplishes just that, and it pays off in spades establishing the ape culture.

I really approve of the way Dawn handles guns. In my own circles, I have recently lamented the unintentional silliness that guns can bring to film and television. I’m currently re-watching LOST with my wife, and the gun usage reaches almost comic proportions. I’m not anti-gun, but when it comes to my entertainment, I think guns need to bring either dramatic or comedic weight to the proceedings. I’ve come to realize I was never critical enough of the way the castaways in LOST never seem to run out of guns. Even if the grander story unfolds very elegantly, the guns are the clunky gears (and sometimes crutches) needed to keep it all going. I don’t like it when all of the conflicts are resolved by which side brought more guns, or who is able to draw their piece first.

A filmic example of this same issue is Inception. Chris Nolan’s 2010 blockbuster was great in a lot of ways, but it also used weapons rather superfluously. The conflicts that inevitably arose in each dream level were pretty much always resolved with firepower. Tom Hardy’s character, Eames, says, while under fire from hostile projections of the unconscious, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a bit bigger, darling.”

As lovely a sentiment as that is, it is immediately followed by Eames summoning a bigger gun than that of their attackers. Is that really the best dreaming they could come up with? Are guns the only thing populating the subconscious of these characters? It’s like Inception takes a page from Michael Scott’s playbook. In one episode of The Office, Scott, played by Steve Carell, tries and fails to impress his improv class by always revealing an imaginary gun in the middle of a scene.  In Inception, when we’re talking about people fighting other people in yet another person’s dream, why must every scene devolve into a shootout? As interesting as the structure of the film is, I still think Inception would have been a better movie if the mode of combat was martial arts.

Michael Scott thinks guns are inherently exciting too

Michael Scott thinks guns are inherently exciting too

More to the point, in Dawn, the apes don’t understand guns, but boy, do they ever learn. They are seen destroying guns in two different scenes. Eventually, they realize that brandishing them is the best way to strike fear into the hearts of men and that’s when things get zany. I’m trying to stay spoiler-free, but just picture a bunch of apes. Now picture them all riding horseback. Finally, imagine them on horseback and carrying assault rifles. I mentioned Dawn features some shocking images, and that is definitely one of them.

Also on the gun front, Jason Clarke’s character can be seen contemplating whether to pack his sidearm for the mission to the dam. I breathed a sigh of relief when he put it away in a drawer. The humans still manage to amass an impressive post-apocalyptic weapons cache, almost of LOST proportions, but I really appreciate how Dawn generally turns the issue of gun use on its ear.

Speaking of Jason Clarke, he has had quite a run in recent years. The Australian has inserted his surly disposition into several large studio films including LawlessZero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby and White House Down. He’s also poised to play John Connor in the next Terminator film set to open in 2015. The human characters in Dawn certainly take a backseat to the apes, but I think I liked Clarke better in this role than anything else I’ve seen him in.

Andy Serkis using performance-capture tech

Andy Serkis using performance-capture tech

Fair or not, I needed to overcome some issues to get excited about seeing Dawn. One thing that helped was finding out Keri Russell, who has been so great in FX’s The Americans, was in it. Anther credit goes to director Matt Reeves. He is a genuine Ape Nut. He’s had an obsession with the franchise since his childhood and he really manages to use it for good in Dawn. His previous directing credits include Cloverfield (2008), and Let Me In (2010), which also featured Kodi Smit-McPhee. Not a bad track record by any standard.

The great Michael Giacchino (Academy Award Winner for Up) composed the score, which was brilliant, and recalled the nutty music from the original film. Giacchino has quite a resume and actually did some of his first work on Alias, a show created by J.J. Abrams. Why do I mention this? Because Abrams and Reeves were childhood friends, making Super 8 mm films together that aired on local public access. I love convergence.

How does Dawn fit in with the rest of the franchise? I think it’s one of the very best entries and it definitely benefits from its ability to stand alone. The original Planet of the Apes is a true classic, and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) is an under-appreciated masterpiece. I think Dawn sits comfortably up there with the best of the series. Continuity is another story. I remain steadfast in my belief that the continuity is shot between the two recent films and the original saga. Matt Reeves has stated that the story is mapped out to lead right into the 1968 original, but I just don’t see any satisfactory way of making the two ends meet. If anything, Dawn feels like a remake of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, rather than a natural extension or prequel.

If you can stomach the premise of this film, you should see it. No hesitation. It’s a great film, and you don’t need to bother seeing Rise to be prepared for it., Though I still don’t buy the continuity being intact one bit, it does the Apes legacy proud. We can all be glad to hear that Reeves has been announced as the director of the next entry. For the moment, it looks as though Apes has been successfully resurrected after all.

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