Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a movie that shouldn't exist.
The original Planet of the Apes film is a solid movie with an ending that's so iconic, people ignore the fact that it's basically just a long episode of The Twilight Zone. Most moviegoers today don't know much about the four other films in the original Planets of the Apes series, know even less about the two TV shows and, if they're really lucky, never had to endure the Tim Burton remake. Heading into the '10s, Planet of the Apes was little more than another piece of pop culture to joke about and bring up when making lists of movies with the best "twist" endings.
There the series would have sat were it not for Hollywood learning to love the reboot. Someone got the bright idea to take a realistic look at how a planet run by apes might come about, and the result was 2011's extremely entertaining Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the beginning of a new Apes franchise. Ultimately Rise worked because it got two things right: The apes had to be believable, and they had to be the focus of the story.
Making CGI aliens and fantasy creatures is easy; it just takes time and money. As long as the CGI work isn't at Syfy Channel levels of awful, audiences are pretty forgiving. Only the most passionate of Internet warriors is going to argue that some imaginary creature doesn't move the way it should.
Making CGI apes is tough. We know what apes look like and we know how they move. If you're going to make an ape the hero of your movie, that ape is going to have to look incredible for the audience to buy into it.
Caesar, the chimpanzee hero of Rise, is a masterpiece of CGI and motion capture. Andy Serkis and the team of animators responsible for building upon his physical work created a character that was instantly believable. Caesar looks and moves the way we would expect a real chimp to look and move, if a real chimp had been given a drug that made him smarter than the average ape.
All that technical work would mean little if the folks making the film had half-assed the story side of the equation, but they didn't. Sure, James Franco might get top billing and John Lithgow and Brian Cox show up for a spell, but the movie is really about the journey of Caesar from being part of the human world to wanting to escape it entirely, even if that means engaging in a bit of ape-on-man violence. It's exciting because it's different; thousands of stories exist about humans, but very few about intelligent apes. And really, who doesn't like seeing an ape riding a horse into battle?
The one thing Rise doesn't do is answer the question of how apes could take over the planet, which is weird considering the fact that the movie is literally called Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Luckily for fans of ape domination, the only thing Hollywood loves as much as the reboot is the sequel, which is why Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a thing hitting theaters in 2014.
Let's get the boring details out of the way first: No, director Rupert Wyatt and actor James Franco are not returning for the sequel. Wyatt didn't think he could get the movie done in the time frame the studio wanted and was replaced with Cloverfield director Matt Reeves. No one can claim Reeves doesn't know how to terrorize humans with CGI monsters, so he feels like a solid choice. The lead human this time around will be Gary Oldman, which is awesome because he's Gary-freaking-Oldman.
While that's all good and well, the reason to be excited about Dawn is the story. The official synopsis of the film tells us that humans are at the brink after being ravaged by the disease unleashed at the end of Rise and have reached an uneasy peace with the apes. Caesar is still the leader of the ape nation in addition to being an ape husband and father. Considering the fact that the apes appear to be wearing war paint on the official movie posters and in the trailer, it's safe to assume that war is coming.
If you believe that science fiction is best when it's trying to teach us something about our own humanity, there's good reason to root for this new Planet of the Apes franchise. While the emotional journey of the films may belong to the apes, there's a truth the films tell that many may find uncomfortable: Humanity is not the powerhouse it pretends to be.
As a society we dominate other species, but one on one is a completely different story. Sure, we may have developed guns and zoos, but that doesn't change the fact that if you get too close to a monkey, it can rip your face off. Planet of the Apes reminds us that the food pyramid is really just a fancy house of cards on which we sit up top.
And that's a good thing. We need to be reminded sometimes that civilization is one good plague away from ruin. Everyone knows that humanity can destroy itself, but people often forget that humanity is made up of fragile sacks of skin that can be destroyed by damn near everything else on this planet.
So enjoy the story of Caesar and of apes versus humans. Marvel at the technological advances in acting and storytelling. Celebrate that science fiction doesn't completely suck anymore.
Just remember the truth the movie is speaking the next time you go to the zoo. Don't taunt the animals. You never know if the greatest ape that ever lived is planning the rebellion right in front of you.
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