HARRISVILLE, NH. - Could anyone have rightly expected 20th Century Fox’s reboot of the "Planet of the Apes" series back in 2011 to result in anything but a mediocre movie at best? At least the decision to restart the series from scratch spared the world from having to sit through a sequel to the travesty that was 2001’s remake of "Planet of the Apes." The fact that the remake was directed by none other than Tim Burton merely threw salt into the wound as fans of "Edward Scissorhands" (1990) and "Ed Wood" (1994) shook their heads in shame assuming Burton was merely cashing a paycheck for the first time in his career.
Yet, against the odds, 2011’s reboot "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" turned out to be a much better movie than anyone could have expected. Just one of the film’s many revisionist surprises was the way it sided more with the apes than the humans, who were, for the most part, presented in a far less flattering light than their simian counterparts. When sadistic animal caretaker Dodge Lanton (Tom Fleton) utters the line Charlton Heston immortalized in the original 1968 movie, "Get your hands off me you damned dirty ape!" it is clear your sympathies are most decidedly not on the human side this time around.
Now, in the latest surprise development of the "Apes" series, the new sequel "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" proves to be even better than its predecessor.
So how do you go about making a sequel better than its predecessor? You can start with an even more compelling story. This time around, the action involves the usual big budget movie pyrotechnics, but also features parallel power struggles taking place on both sides of the ape/human divide.
The power struggle on the side of the apes mirrors Shakespearian drama as we watch the community struggle between Caesar’s thoughtful, diplomatic approach and the more militaristic Koba’s concern’s about the humans’ intentions. Koba isn’t a simplistic villain either, as his mistrust of humans is based on his experiences being tortured by them in the name of science. In one memorable scene, he employs a "circus monkey clown" act to outwit a couple of armed human soldiers that effectively displays the contempt he has for having been at the service of human purposes. At the same time, his violent impulses display a primal instinct that illuminates aspects of the human condition as well.
Meanwhile that human side of the equation is presented as equally conflicted. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) desperately struggles to maintain his leadership and save his group of human survivors. However he is also colored with a destructive militaristic streak that could threaten to destroy both species in all out war.
At the same time, group member Malcolm (Jason Clarke) manages a more compassionate view in which the apes aren’t seen as merely enemies and obstacles to human survival, but instead requires navigating a tricky course of negotiation and trust. It’s a scenario that effectively illustrates the potential minefield that lies at the heart of political decision making and how personal morality plays a part in diplomacy.
Fortunately director Matt Reeves constantly reminds us that these cerebral themes are at the service of a big-budget action film, and manages to bring a visceral level of drama to the movie. He maintains a consistently high level of tension throughout the film as it alternates between optimistic moments of understanding and its characters’ most destructive impulses. One shot in particular during the apes’ siege upon the human stronghold has Koba perched behind a tank’s rotating machine gun as he blasts away artillery in every direction. It is an extraordinary shot that vividly shows the devastating carnage that is taking place around him that can’t help but draw you in to the film’s spectacular scenario.
The original 1968 "Planet of the Apes" screenplay was co-written by "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling, who was a master of exploring controversial themes by placing stories in an alternate, and clearly fictional universe. While filmmaking in the 21st century is clearly not under the constraints of 1950’s television, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" still manages to successfully follow that mold. On the one hand, it creates spectacular drama in a fantastical future world in which apes believably thrive in a post-apocalyptic environment where man is no longer at the top of the food chain. At the same time, the film depicts simultaneous power struggles that provide a moral weight seldom seen in a big-budget summer blockbuster. I bet even Rod Serling himself would be impressed.
Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.