‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ doesn’t move the story forward

By Gary Clift

Let’s get started right now fabricating the title of the next Planet of the Apes film. We’ve already had “Planet of the Apes” twice, in 1968 and, as if we needed the exercise repeated, in 2001.

We’ve had “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” in 1970 and “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (oh, would that this were possible!) a year later. The millennial Apes movies include “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” in 2011 and, now, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

Did I miss any? Golly, I wish I’d missed some of the ones I remember.

The series that started with Charlton Heston as a long-traveling astronaut landing on a planet run by Roddy MacDowell and company, a planet which turns out to be a future Earth—that series and the current one don’t line up, really. I’m referring to the second group of movies as if they were all part of one thing.

Style-minded Tim Burton’s 2001 movie, with Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth isn’t really much related to the 2011 film (the James-Franco-in-the-medical-lab one) or the current film. And the new movie STILL doesn’t get us back to the world Heston’s character found when alighting from his space ship.

In fact, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” doesn’t really move the story forward in any way. At its end we are in just about the same place we were after “Rise.”

For this we can blame a small squad of screen writers and director Matt Reeves, whose claim to fame is that he made a horror movie called “Let Me In,” another of those titles that seems to have been re-formulated for frequent use the last ten years.

The worst thing about the sequel not advancing the story of the series is that it also doesn’t advance any story of its own. Human medicine and testing practices have led to a generation of over-sized, over-smart apes. Their revolt against their human masters has, somehow, become apocalyptic.

The human-raised leader of the apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) is presented as being unquestioned by his minions. This makes it silly to believe the apes will turn on him and his peace-loving philosophy so completely and quickly once he is done dirty by his lieutenant, the confrontation-loving Koba.

The movie tries to give itself some literary frills. It opens and closes with close-ups on the eyes of Caesar. It presents two social units with parallels everywhere—there is a human-hating chimp and a chimp-hating human, there is a human family and an ape family, the humans live in a post apocalyptic San Francisco and the apes in a jungle high-rise village much like the city buildings the humans have re-occupied.

O.K. Get it? Apes and humans are alike. Except that they aren’t. Caesar recognizes that he must put up a physically strong front to keep his followers in line. Gary Oldham only has to talk on a bull horn to maintain command of his apparently always frightened re-settlers.

Among the movie’s problems, though, are the ones that have to do with the ape costumes and abilities. At least the monkeys can speak a few words in this picture, but monosyllables and sign language (translated in subtitles) aren’t really dialog. And the ape actors can’t really act with their faces, which are burred under make-up. So acting tells us little about what we should think and feel about the simian characters.

So it is entirely possible for viewers to believe Caesar, for example, is being cynical all the way through until the last reel. He isn’t. But he can’t express any shade of interpretation which might convince us he isn’t. This wrecks the movie, even if it had a chance otherwise.

It didn’t. This kind of story—worlds in conflict—can only work if we see it as emblematic, about something in our own world. The same formula in a cowboy and Indian movie might be there to teach us about our relationship with Arab countries, say. But what other civilization can be represented with genetically altered apes?

Consequently, I have settled on a title for the next Planet of the Apes film: “Positively Last Planet of the Apes.” And even then, we’d have one more of these films to suffer through.

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