As someone who’s really fond of writing, it would be my first instinct to tell you that a screenplay is the most important part of a film — after all, we only ever come to take any interest in certain images or set pieces because there are complex, interesting characters and an original, compelling narrative behind them. Right? Well, sort of; it is almost universally true that a movie can’t be really great if the screenplay isn’t at least good, and it is very hard for a movie to not be at least good if the screenplay is great. But, though I’d be ready to fight alongside the writers if civil war ever broke out in Tinseltown, I can’t say with a straight face that a screenplay has to be great in order for the movie to be great as well. All of which is to say that, upon finishing watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the first thought that occurred to me was this: not since Avatar has a film’s adherence to well-worn tropes and black-and-white characterization been so completely beside the point.
Because, let’s be honest, this is a movie with well-worn tropes and black-and-white characterization. The plot follows many of the conventional war epic rhythms to a letter, from the confused teenage son (of which there are two, actually) to the gradual approximation between members of the two sides, from the idiot who ruins everything to the token female character whose role in the plot is to take care of everyone’s wounds. With the exception of Gary Oldman’s actually pretty interesting authority figure, everyone who’s good is good and everyone who’s bad is bad, with little room for ethical complexity — this isn’t the sort of movie where we waste much time questioning the hero’s motives. And that’s for the better, all of that is for the better, because Dawn… is so exciting and astonishing on a visceral, purely cinematic level that you can’t fault it for being structurally conventional. Its script is unabashedly old-fashioned, yes, but there’s enough groundbreaking stuff everywhere else to make a great film.
In fact, part of what makes this movie great is exactly the way the director, Matt Reeves of Cloverfield and Let Me In fame, resorts to storytelling customs to maximize the impact of the film’s more novel elements. In taking all the big movie commonplaces, distilling them, and using the remaining space to do things no other movie has ever done so efficiently, Reeves imbues Dawn… with an even more precise iteration of the high-spirited sturdiness that made the first film work so well; here’s a rare high-concept movie that more than does justice to the possibilities of its high concept, be it exploring humans’ unprecedented fear of submission to a different species or speculating which of man’s societal structures a civilization of apes might come to replicate. And so we watch, in the opening minutes, as they viciously hunt down deer with wooden spears, or sit around a wise, literate orangutan to be taught new things, or ride horses to San Francisco to tell those pesky humans to get off their lawn, and all of that is treated very seriously and in a way that makes the simian way of life feel plausible and fascinating.
Which is essential, of course, in a sequel that takes place 10 years after the original, following such big events as a viral apocalypse and the blossoming of an entire community of previously irrational primates. A lesser film would have forced its audience to take the apes’ dexterity for granted (“Just watch the first film and it’ll make sense”); instead, the solid groundwork laid by 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is used only as a springboard. You may not understand just how the apes managed to learn how to read and write if you haven’t seen the first installment, but here that bit of information is presented so naturally and skillfully that you just accept is as the truth and let the film move right on to the implications. And there are many, many implications, enough for ten high-profile action movies; as a piece of popular entertainment, Dawn… feels positively literary in its subtext, musing earnestly and eloquently about mankind’s place on Earth, the necessity and/or futility of war, how much of the failure of political systems is linked to a species’s animal nature, and other things you aren’t supposed to think about when you go watch a blockbuster. (This has been a fortunate trend in mass cinema; between this, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the Hunger Games series, it’s like Hollywood is slowly remembering it has a brain. (Ironic, then, that the best popcorn flick of the year has perhaps been the unabashedly escapist Guardians of the Galaxy.)) In that sense, it sets itself apart from other recent movie-movie megahits like Gravity and the aforementioned Avatar because, while its plot elements and characterization are still rather thin, there is a lot going on beneath the surface.
And yet it should be reiterated: with a surface like this, all of that thematic ambition wouldn’t even be necessary for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to be a remarkable film. It’s already got enough flair that certain scenes in it — I’m thinking of the not-a-single-human-being-in-sight deer hunt at the beginning, or the arresting physical match between the two principal, rivaling apes — seem poised to become staples of effects-driven film, or even of modern film in general, shot as they are with nearly impressionistic visual panache. That also applies to the climatic battle, which is filmed clearly and atmospherically in a beautifully-designed post-doom San Francisco and induces complete emotional involvement even as it gets partly lost in questionable action mechanics. The motion capture technology, too, is employed to startling effects, making for some of the most expressive digital characters ever committed to film. In a year without Interstellar, the film’s VFX Oscar would be in the bag (on that note, it’s still a bit strange to remember that the first, equally revolutionary chapter lost Effects to Hugo of all films); in a year without such a crowded field, I wouldn’t be that surprised to find it among the actual Best Picture nominees. It’s certainly got the weightiness.
And of course, in a year without the Academy’s usual grumpy-old-man antics, Andy Serkis would get an acting nomination for his sensational work as Caesar. This is wishful thinking, of course, and will be so for a long time — but honestly, it’s the Oscars’ loss. What Serkis does here is already expectable of someone with his credits, yet somehow it’s doubly impressive if you’re familiar with his work as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and triply impressive if you’ve seen the first film. After selling Caesar’s complicated emotional journey in Rise…, Serkis embodies him in this one as a stern, dependable, morally weary hero that wouldn’t be out of place in a Shakespeare production; the only way I can conceive of another actor watching him here and not finding it one of the best performances of the year is if they fooled themselves into thinking it’s all just post-production (it isn’t; there’s a reason Serkis always gets called upon for jobs like this). It’s a singular combination of voice-over, facial expressions, and physical language that would ruin the movie if handed to the wrong actor. Here, once again, it elevates it, as do the turns of his other digitalized castmates, notably Toby Kebbell as devious bonobo Koba.
Good thing, too, because the human cast is almost uniformly bland. This is the one thing the 2011 movie’s got on this one; its Homo sapiens ensemble of James Franco et al. may have been just as generic, but at least its participation amounted to more than “humans being humans”, what with the tender relationship between Caesar and his owner->teacher->staggered friend. Now, as hard as the capable likes of Jason Clarke and Keri Russell try, they can’t really do much for the walking clichés they’re playing. Still, the acting is good enough that I became roundly invested in the humans’ fate, and I believe that will be enough for most audiences. So there you have it, Dawn…‘s most glaring flaw is actually not that much of a nuisance. Not a lot of movies can say that for themselves. Nor do many works of art manage to speak so readily to audiences while still offering them things they’re not accustomed to, and that has been the great blessing cast upon the world by this increasingly surprising Apes reboot series. Should the trend follow, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Batman vs. Superman movie turned out to be a challenging meditation on the subjectivity of justice.
No, actually, Zack Snyder is directing it, isn’t he? So yes, I would still be surprised. But my point stands.