Planet of the apes never transcends monkey business

By Karsten Burgstahler

This summer has been full of ridiculous images on screen. Magneto dropping a baseball stadium on the White House in “X-Men.” An alien vessel dropping a ship on Optimus Prime in “Transformers.”

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (Rated PG-13; 130 min.) doesn’t drop anything on us, persay. But it certainly joins the ridiculous image club, with its shot of apes waving machine guns and riding through fire into war on horses in slow motion. It’s something so crazy it takes a visionary to pull it off on screen while also giving the scene some symbolic meaning.

Director Matt Reeves tries to be that visionary. He isn’t.


“Apes” picks up ten years after the series’ second reboot, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” for those of you keeping score at home. Caesar (played by Andy Serkis, the most engrossing thing about the film), the genius ape who led a rebellion during the first movie’s climax, now lives in the woods outside San Francisco with his comrades. A deadly form of the flu wiped out most of humanity, but a small remnant lives in the city. In order to restore power the humans must venture into the woods to restore a hydroelectric dam. The problem? The apes are nestled right where the humans need to work. A territory war ensues, but not for the reasons you might think.

There are two storylines going on here: the humans and the apes. To his credit, Reeves deftly balances the two stories. The problem is that neither is all that engrossing. The humans don’t get much to do but bow before the apes, and the somewhat villainous Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who doesn’t trust the apes, never lives up to his full potential. This is doubly disappointing because Oldman gets relegated to the background.

Koba, the Brutus to ape Caesar’s Caesar, is the real villain here. Or is he? Reeves and his THREE (!!) screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver never quite give the audience a good reason to side with the apes or the humans. It could be an animal rights story, but by the climax you’ll be rooting for Koba to get his. It could be a call for gun control, but that’ll be lost on most audiences when they realize how goofy it looks for apes to carry guns. Neither side is particularly fleshed out well enough. “Apes” wants to stand for something but can’t quite figure out what.

So looking past the script and the performances, all we really have is the special effects and the digital apes from WETA Digital, best known for its work on “Avatar.” Sure, the apes stun. After the prologue we get silence for several minutes as the apes communicate with each other through sign language. It’s stunning for the time being. However, the apes are required to carry the film’s emotional heft despite only being able to speak simple sentences. It adds up to an unsatisfying experience.

“Rise” is the superior film in this section of the franchise, telling an interesting human story while pushing against animal cruelty. Any message “Dawn” has gets lost in the stampeding horses, blown away by those apes with machine guns.