Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a darkly thrilling second episode of version 3.0 of the Planet of the Apes saga, a brooding tale about a desperate band of humans who survived a catastrophic plague. They live near a band of wary forest apes who just want to be left alone but are skilled with weapons and are harboring a bad-tempered would-be leader who is itching to start a war. Thanks to excellent special effects, a suspenseful storyline and bold, frightening action scenes, a 46-year-old series is now as fresh as if it had been dreamed up yesterday.
Here’s what some of the less successful blockbuster franchises that have overstayed their welcome could learn by waking up to Dawn.
Thanks to the new strategy of relentlessly pandering to the Chinese, who have already made the fourth installment their highest-grossing film ever, this series is nowhere near finished. But American audiences are already signalling that they’re losing interest. The problem is that it’s hard to whip up emotional involvement when machines fight machines. In Planet of the Apes, even though half the cast aren’t even human, character comes first and conflict comes from a primal place — fears of rival species and justified anger at human experimentation on chimpanzees that took place in the earlier film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. If special effects are all your film has to offer, that’s not enough.
Humor can be generated organically in a superhero movie, as when (in the 2002 film Spider-Man) Peter Parker was as thrilled as any teen would be to discover he had superpowers. In the smarmy latest film The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Peter/Spidey cracks so many would-be hip one-liners that it’s like watching a particularly painful audition for the young comedians’ show. Great franchises don’t cheapen mythic characters, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes goes in the opposite direction when it develops the ape leader Caesar (played by Andy Serkis) into a genuinely serious, thoughtful hero with real moral clarity and a strong inner core. If The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s screenwriters had gotten involved, Caesar would have been cracking banana jokes.
Next year’s Terminator: Genesis will star a retired ex-politician named Arnold Schwarzenegger, 31 years after the original film was released and more than 10 years after audiences stopped caring about Schwarzenegger. If any project can relaunch Arnold as a film star, it’s the Terminator franchise. But the smart money says this is a vanity project that arrived way too late for anyone to get excited about. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes features several strong actors but it doesn’t put its chips on an alleged audience-drawing personality. Instead it’s putting the story above the star.
Dawn has a straight-up, clean, coherent storyline: Humans living in San Francisco hope to turn the power back on in their city by fixing a dam that lies out in the woods, in territory ruled by highly intelligent apes. War between man and ape could break out at any moment. The Pirates movies have increasingly become a mess of tangled storytelling, contrived twists and random special-effects pieces. If the screenwriters seem to be making it up as they go along, it’s hard to get caught up in the plot.
The first Expendables movie seemed like a fresh idea because it featured so many big names. Actually, though, all-star casts (of has-beens) were a fixture of ’70s movies like the Airport movies, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. Though it was amusing to see Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone clowning around in The Expendables 2, there’s a reason why audiences lost interest in the all-star cast by about 1980. They’re a gimmick that usually is meant to cover up for a lack of a compelling or original storyline.
If Dawn were filled with name-above-the-title actors instead of career supporting players like Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke (who is also playing John Connor in next year’s Terminator flick), the big names would be stepping on each other’s toes looking for chest-beating showcase moments and trailer-worthy one-liners. The Expendables 3, due Aug. 15, throws Mel Gibson, Kelsey Grammer, Antonio Banderas, Wesley Snipes and Harrison Ford into the mix, but it seems like a desperation move: What Stallone needs isn’t more former A-list actors but a current A-list writer to do the screenplay. Instead, he wrote it himself.