One of my earliest and most iconic memories from a movie is the ending of the original “Planet of the Apes,” when Charlton Heston discovered the head of the Statue of Liberty lying on a beach and suddenly realized that he was in fact on Earth and humanity had been destroyed and taken over by mutant apes. Watching it on TV at age eight, it shocked me to the core and has remained one of my all-time favorite movies.
There were four film sequels and a TV series after that in the 1970s before the initial phenomenon finally died out, and a reboot of the original in 2001 from Tim Burton that was generally considered a disappointment. But 20th Century Fox returned to the well in 2011 with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” creating a huge worldwide hit that was critically acclaimed as the best since Heston’s film – and the results were good enough to approve two more films for a new trilogy.
Unfortunately, the first of those films, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” is a disastrous step backwards on nearly every level. Whereas “Rise” built its exciting tale not only on impressive effects but also well-drawn human characters played by name actors including major star James Franco and John Lithgow, the only recognizable actors in “Dawn” are Gary Oldman, who’s only sporadically shown as the fanatical leader of a human colony, and an utterly wasted Keri Russell as – well, a pretty and personality-free hot body to come home to for the ostensible human hero.
“Dawn” starts off intriguingly enough with a sinister prologue in which the spread of a pandemic virus that wiped out most of humanity is recounted through well-edited news footage from real-life situations. The main events occur a decade after “Rise” ended with thousands of apes overrunning and then fleeing San Francisco for the natural protection of the redwood forests, as the apes are living in peace amongst themselves and wondering if there are any humans left in the world.
To their surprise, a lone human appears, and when he’s confronted, he fearfully kills an ape with a gun. When the human runs back to a group of fellow explorers led by a gentle guy named Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the team tries to make peace with the rest of the apes but are instead sent away by lead chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis) with a ferocious shout of “Go!”
Returning to home base in the ruins of San Francisco, Malcolm tells colony leader Dreyfus (Oldman) about the ill-fated encounter. He had been leading his science-minded team on a quest to find and regenerate a dam so that the colony can have electricity for the first time in years, and gets permission to spend three days making peace with the apes and succeed in starting the dam – but if he fails, Dreyfus will lead an army of men with an enormous stockpile of weapons on a rampage to wipe out the apes and take over the dam by force.
The peace mission appears to succeed at first, but an ape rival of Caesar’s named Koba hates humans for the abuse they used to heap upon him in conducting scientific research, and he leads a revolt on Caesar that has disastrous consequences for both sides. The result is all-out war between mankind and the simians.
I realize that it took me four paragraphs to explain the film, and that that fact might make “Dawn” sound a complex film with an exciting, action-packed plot. But trust me, the actual experience of watching this bloated 130-minute film (an excruciating 25 minutes longer than “Rise”) is far from awe-inspiring, as the movie spends literally its first hour with countless scenes of societal and familial peace among the apes and establishing a bond of friendship between the dam-generating team and the monkeys.
The few twists leading to the actual war take place in just a few minutes, and lead into a final hour of non-stop monkey mayhem that is dark and depressing and often barely discernible through fog and smoke. Perhaps the thrill is gone because “Rise” used 40 years of advances in special effects to thoroughly shock and awe the audience with an unforgettable battle royale on the Golden Gate Bridge, and there’s simply nowhere to go in comparison.
But it doesn’t help that the human characters are ciphers, either as psycho gun nuts eager to kill or the simpering sap Malcolm, who spends most of the movie begging for understanding. He and his rival Dreyfus are the only humans who are given entire paragraphs of thoughts to recite, while the rest of the dialogue is so spare and sporadic it could have actually been written by the proverbial 100th monkey banging on a typewriter.
All these disastrous decisions, combined with incessant heavy-handed politicizing (“No guns!” and “Apes don’t kill apes!” are repeated loudly on numerous occasions), will leave viewers wishing they could leave the planet themselves.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is rated PG-13. It has barely any foul language and no sex or nudity, but a whole lot of gunfire, explosions, rampaging warfare and ape-on-ape violence. It’s definitely not for kids under 10 or so due to its intensity.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.