Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, review: Andy Serkis is an extraordinarily expressive Caesar

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Fans can expect full blooded action sequences from Matt Reeves' blockbuster

"Caesar loves humans more than apes" is the charge levelled at the simian hero of Matt Reeves' new blockbuster.

Caesar’s accuser is his Iago-like lieutenant Koba, who utterly detests humankind but isn’t especially fond of chimps and orang-utans either. Koba behaves with a level of violence and duplicity that even the humans can't quite match. He also gets many of the film’s best lines.

One of the fascinations of the film, and ultimately one of its biggest frustrations, is how close the apes are to the humans. Some of them speak in monosyllabic English, a bit like Apaches in old westerns, uttering gnomic lines like “ apes do no want war.”

They communicate elegantly in sign language (translated on screen by subtitles.) “They want what we want…to survive,” the well-meaning Malcolm (Jason Clarke) says of them.

 

 

The new film may lack the sentimentality of its predecessor (with its scenes of James Franco’s scientist doting on Caesar when he was a cuddly young chimp) but it anthropomorphises the apes even more. They ride horses. The shoot guns. They drink alcohol. They love their partners. They cry. They are nostalgic about their childhood. They’re so like the humans that there hardly seems any point in them being apes.

At the end of the last film, the apes escaped captivity, rampaged along the Golden Gate Bridge and headed up into the hills. Now, a few years on, they seem to be thriving in an Edenic wilderness.

The humans, by contrast, are in a wretched state. A virus (wrongly blamed on the apes) has wiped out vast swathes of the population. San Francisco has a post-apocalyptic look. Here, human survivors are eking out an existence, running short on food and electricity under the command of their leader Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman in bossy, heroic Commissioner Gordon mode).

There is a tremendous sequence early on in which the apes kill a bear. In this scene, at least, the feral quality of the apes is not in question. Nor is their capacity for violence.

Even better is the scene in which, after many years of no contact, they first re-encounter humans (who are on an expedition into the wilds to try to repair an old dam.) As hundreds come swooping down out of the damp, mist-shrouded woods to confront Malcolm and the other humans, the gorilla army make a truly intimidating sight.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) is their leader. Given the constraints under which he must have been working, being filmed with motion capture technology and under layers of heavy make-up, Serkis’ performance is extraordinarily expressive. He has an imposing gait. We know he is boss by the slow and deliberate way he moves. Serkis brings a gravitas and pathos to his role. He also roars and moves with menace in the fight scenes.

It’s a rounded, deeply layered performance, a world away from the pantomime-style kitsch of the ape characters in Tim Burton’s 2001 film or in earlier ape sagas in which Roddy McDowall “chimped” up. Meanwhile, Toby Kebbell shows snarling malevolence as Koba.

Reeves’ production designers take an obvious delight in portraying San Francisco in the depths of decay. Weeds are sprouting up through the sidewalks. There is graffiti everywhere. The skyscrapers are uninhabited (although their girders and ledges make an excellent backdrop for the apes to swing and fight from.). A very modern city has been forced to function along medieval lines. There is one haunting scene in an abandoned garage in which the electricity comes back on and we suddenly hear The Band’s classic song The Weight blaring out from a jukebox.

The scenes in the forest are equally well detailed. For the humans who venture out here, the natural world is damp, misty and very threatening.

Jason Clarke stars as Malcolm in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as he tries to reconcile the warring apes and humans Jason Clarke stars as Malcolm in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

What Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is lacking is any obvious subtext. Most previous Ape movies have had a strong allegorical undertow. They were probing away at racial and political tensions in late 60s and early 70s US society, a period when the threat of nuclear destruction was also taken very seriously.

Here, it is very hard to work out what Reeves is driving at. At one stage, we see a faded American flag featured prominently as the humans sink to their lowest ebb. The once mighty nation can no longer defend itself. The surviving citizens of San Francisco are learning what it is like to live in a state of siege and captivity. They are in thrall to Koba, who suffered in captivity and is now as much a scourge of the humans as the most ruthless terrorist leader.

If the filmmakers are making some comment on the decline of American empire, they are doing so only in passing. One guesses Reeves’ real concern is to deliver the thrills expected in a summer franchise movie.

The plotting here is predictable and, at times, even melodramatic. As family complications abound and Koba seeks to usurp Caesar, it’s as if we are watching a simian soap opera minus the teabags. There are few surprises in how any of the characters, ape or human, behave or in what becomes of them. What the film does offer is full blooded action sequences. We see the apes charging humans on horseback, blowing up their defences and even turning their own tanks against them. There are terrifying scenes of people scurrying for safety as the invaders round them up.

In terms of ideas, all Reeves really tells us is that simian and human nature are two sides of the same coin. There are good apes and bad humans - and vice versa. That won’t ever change. After all, if ever they managed to live together without violence, the whole point of the franchise would be lost.

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