July 16, 2014

The usual complaint of critics about sequels is that they are intellectually unchallenging. Yet sequels have become more cognitively demanding as screenwriters have come to assume that moviegoers will first brush up on the finer points of the prior movie using Wikipedia. Moreover, the people who make movies tend to be smarter than the people who watch them, so they reward themselves for having made a hit by tossing more complex material into subsequent installments.

An exception to this rule, however, is the critics”€™ favorite among this summer’s blockbusters, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which is massively dumbed down from the ingenious screenplay for the surprise 2011 hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

After Tim Burton’s misfire in 2001, the quasi-venerable Planet of the Apes franchise appeared dead in the water until Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver penned a reboot in which talking monkeys sort of make sense. In Rise, a San Francisco pharmaceutical scientist played by James Franco invents a viral drug to fight Alzheimer’s disease by juicing IQ. It works overly well on laboratory apes, but kills humans like AIDS on steroids.

With motion capture specialist Andy Serkis, who had played Gollum and King Kong for Peter Jackson, superb as the chimpanzee Caesar who leads a revolt of lab animals, Rise was a surprise hit.

“€œIn the first Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston, the ultimate white man, is thrown into a world where monkeys are the Man and he is reduced to the status of an angry black radical.”€

You might think that for the sequel, 20th Century Fox would have danced with the ones who brung them. But at the last moment before Dawn‘s filming had to begin, a new director, Matt Reeves, was hired. And Reeves brought in screenwriter Mark Bomback, who, under considerable time pressure, whipped together a serviceable but lowbrow script. 

The inadequacies of the story are most obvious in the human segments. For example, the human survivors of the apocalyptic plague, despite having all of San Francisco’s housing stock to choose from, don”€™t bother to spread out to avoid further infection. Instead, the thousand or so remnants have jammed into a single building in downtown San Francisco under the leadership of Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke.

Neither of these fine actors can overcome the screenplay’s weaknesses. Oldman is an expert at portraying average men, and is ill-cast as a former Navy SEAL who presumably dominates the nervous community through his charisma. Clarke, an Australian actor who was the CIA interrogator in Zero Dark Thirty, looks and acts much like Bill Murray. That would normally be a good thing, but in this somber, humor-free film, it’s a constant distraction.

The moviemakers intentionally recorded the human dialogue badly”€”the actors sound like they phoned their lines in via Nokia handpieces”€”in order to make the monkeys shine in comparison. (The subsonic effects for the ape scenes are among the most spectacular I”€™ve ever heard [felt?].) But did they truly have to write only inane dialogue for us people?

Ten years after the epidemic, the San Franciscans have run out of fuel for electrical generation, so they must cross the Golden Gate Bridge and restore a small hydroelectric dam in Marin County. (Aren”€™t there any dams above Silicon Valley to the south?) In Muir Woods they discover a vast colony of intelligent apes building a civilization out of sharpened sticks. Chimps, gorillas, and orangutans live as one.

Led by the majestic and wise Caesar and his lean and hungry right-hand bonobo Koba, the primates hunt deer and communicate via stylized sign language and tersely grandiloquent speech.

In other words, this is a cowboy and Indian movie, with apes as the noble savages.

In many old-time Westerns, a cowboy being tortured by Indians would prophetically announce something to the effect of: “€œYou can kill me, but there are countless more palefaces who will follow, and you can”€™t stop all of us.”€ These movies were made during an era when majority rule and Benthamite utilitarianism (“€œthe greatest good for the greatest number”€) were thought progressive. (Today, Americans believe in the greatest good for the smallest number.)

In a sci-fi universe in which humans are dying out and apes are exploding in numbers, however, the simians as endangered natives framework doesn”€™t make much intuitive sense.

By the way, why are there so many Marin monkeys after only 10 years? You might think it’s from doing what comes naturally. But if Caesar, who heads a decorous nuclear family of one wife and two sons eight years apart, is representative, enhanced IQs appear to depress fertility even among superchimps.

Eventually the swarming simians attack the M16-armed humans with a Somme-style head-on charge. (Why gorillas don”€™t prefer guerilla warfare is never explicated.)


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