Trying to do a prequel to a franchise like Planet of the Apes is an interesting proposition. We know the central conceit of the Apes franchise, of a future world controlled by talking apes that have enslaved humanity. For all the weird shenanigans of the franchise in the ‘70s, this particular franchise would become one of ridiculous science fiction after being a fairly interesting science fiction film with Charlton Heston. The conceit of man not being the apex predator, of being subservient to another race of creatures, made for interesting intellectual discussions as well as a fairly influential film in the original Planet of the Apes.
Thus it was curious when they opted to go back with Rise of the Plane of the Apes to explore the origins of the franchise. Giving us a glimpse into the rise of the sentient apes through the eyes of Caesar, the first ape to have this sort of self awareness that we see fully evolved later in the franchise, we get to see the very beginnings of the downfall of the great civilization before the ape empire ruled Earth. Now, with the first film a fairly substantial hit, the second of what’s now a planned trilogy is now in theatres with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And right now it’s arguably the high water point in what’s a fairly substandard franchise in overall quality.
It’s been roughly 10 years since the events of the first film. The virus that just started to spread at the end of Rise has come and gone, wiping out most of humanity with it. Humanity was plunged into anarchy and chaos, predictably, and now we’re in a post apocalyptic world. Humans have holed up in San Francisco, in the ruins of that great city, and when survivors go to try and reactivate a hydroelectric dam they come onto something special.
The apes, who went into the woods at the conclusion of Rise, have thrived in their own settlement and control the path to it. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) sees a path to peace between man and ape, wanting to turn the dam back on and garner some sembleance to their old lives. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is more pessimistic, getting his troops ready for war pending Malcolm’s attempts at a working dam and a working relationship with the apes.
Things aren’t meant for peace, of course, and therein lay the crux of the film and arguably its weakest point. Organically the film, which is moving a certain way, has to move in a predetermined version because we’re one film away from being in the crosshairs of the Charlton Heston portion of the franchise. The general conceit of apes ruling the planet is bound to happen and arguably soon; the film has to move that way in order to fulfill the premise of Planet of the Apes as a future reference point in the franchise. It’s the downside of being a prequel; everything has to move in a certain way in order for the basic conceit of the fixed point in time of Planet.
We have to move towards Planet of the Apes and the film, which has so many interesting moments that could be explored, leaves the path not taken for the paved road because we have to get to Ape rule at some point. There are so many different paths and so many different things that could be explored before the war between man and ape ends up with the final defeat of humankind aren’t. It’s a shame because there are so many things, of humanity and apes trying to get along (and the basic weaknesses of both preventing it), that could be explored on a much longer scale that aren’t because we are running head first into a set creation.
Essentially what the franchise is turning into is a mythical warrior’s tale. Caesar in ape history is being poised into the ape that started it all, the one who’s spoken of in myth and tale by apes in the Planet of the Apes series. This is the exploration of the myth, of how he was merely an ape who rose to the circumstances provided. It’s an interesting take for Matt Reeves to take; he’s not looking to explore the man/ape war from a grand perspective. This is from a more intimate one, of those who tried to alter the inevitable and couldn’t. This is akin to hearing the rule story of a mythic event, like reading up on the Battle of Thermopylae after watching 300 and finding out the truth vs. the historical fiction.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a good film bordering on great, hurt in that some of its most interesting story points are quickly closed because they have to be.
Director: Matt Reeves Writer(s): Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver; Based on characters created by Jaffa and Silver Notable Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Kodi Smit-McPhee