Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins and ends with a look into Caesar’s eyes, the individual around whom this movie revolves. It is the look of someone who knows and accepts his destiny as a leader of his ‘people’. But for all the determination, pain and love we see in them, these eyes are not real; they’re millions of pixels composed and animated by the wizards at WETA, the company that created Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Caesar may not be real, but the emotions being channeled through those computer-generated eyes and face are literally extrapolated from the very real acting of Andy Serkis, the amazing English actor who has transformed ‘performance-capture’ into a genuine sub-genre of acting. In 2003, there were already calls for Serkis’ work as Gollum to be recognized with a nomination for an acting Oscar, but the elderly purists at the Academy wouldn’t hear of it. In the ten years since then, Serkis has proven that his Gollum performance was not a ‘one-off’, by bringing to life King Kong (2005), Captain Haddock (The Adventures of Tintin, 2011), Gollum again (The Hobbit movies) and now Caesar.
As with the first film in the series (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011), Caesar is surrounded by a top-notch acting cast, which brings this solid script to life. Jason Clarke, the Australian actor who is rapidly building an impressive body of work in supporting roles, plays Malcolm, a ‘regular guy’ who just wants to live and let live, to forget the past and build a new life with his teenage son Alexander (played by fellow Australian, Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his new partner Ellie (Keri Russell). Malcolm, Alex and Ellie are a part of a rag-tag community living in what remains of San Francisco, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) a man who is also trying to escape the horrors of the last 10 years, following the global outbreak of the Simian flu. With the human community nearing the end of their stockpile of fuel, they are forced into the woods outside the city to try and get a hydro-electric power station working again. In the early part of the film, an exploratory party searching for the power station wanders into Caesar’s home turf and the rest of the movie deals with the explosive mixture that results from the coming together of these two peaceful communities.
Caesar tries to balance his group’s hatred of humans (many of the apes are escaped test subjects from human labs) with his own tender memories of living with humans as an infant. This leads to a challenge of his authority from within his band and drives the two communities into full-scale conflict. How Caesar deals with this situation plays out like a plot from a Coppola or Scorsese film. The real message of the film however is that the apes, for all their utopian dreams, are no different from the humans they mistrust…and how could they be, if more than 95% of our DNA is the same!
I am curious to know how many more films can be made in this prequel series. For those who have seen the original 1968 film (or the technically superior but soulless 2001 remake), we know that this does not end well for the humans. But that dire fate lies thousands of years in the distant future, whereas this new series of prequels traces the early years of the simian uprising and has the scope to go on for another couple of films. I guess the films will cover the story arc of the life of Caesar and of how the foundations of his empire were built. Certainly, the first two films in the series rank as among the most intelligent and well-made scifi films of modern times.
As for Andy Serkis, we will next see him, or rather his on-screen avatar, in unspecified roles in Star Wars: Episode VII and Avengers: Age of Ultron before he returns as the lead in the next Planet of the Apes film in July 2016.