If you would have told me a few years ago that we'd have a new Planet Of The Apes franchise, I wouldn't have believed you. If you would have gone on to tell me that said franchise would be incredibly compelling with some of the best motion capture work I've seen in recent memory, I would have laughed. Past-Luke was summarily shown up this week at the screening for Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, which is an awesome film.
Damn, dirty spoilers below. We've pointed them out as they happen!
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is set around 10 years after the events of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, where a virus developed as the result of Alzheimer's research was set loose on the world, along with hundreds of clever monkeys that had been subjected to the drug in testing.
The leader of these monkeys is Caesar, played brilliantly by Andy Serkis. Caesar leads the new colony of apes which has settled in Muir Woods, North of San Francisco.
Meanwhile, down in the city of San Francisco, a human colony has banded together from the survivors of the Simian Flu, which wiped out billions around the world. The humans are running out of power, and travel up into the woods to find a hydro-electric plant that may solve their troubles. That's when the scouting party runs into a band of apes. One douchey human shoots an ape out of "self-defence", and the two colonies are set on a collision course that ultimately ends in betrayal, murder and all-out war between humans and humans, apes and apes and apes and humans.
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes capitalises on one of the best things about the first film in the rebooted franchise by bringing back a palpable feeling of tension as you watch it. You're always on edge; always made to feel a bit uncomfortable by the actions of humans and apes. In Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, there was always this feeling that something was going to go horribly wrong. You felt like you were helping to keep a friend's secret when James Franco's character had an ape in his house. You felt partly responsible at the end of the film for what happened to the characters, because you were made complicit in the story. It was a deeply involving film that enveloped you in the emotional story about a quest for humanity. The sequel builds on this tension and emotion by pitting two similar, yet completely differing groups — apes and humans — against each other. You always feel like the fragile relationship between humans and apes is going to go sideways at any moment. By the end of the film you feel like you're made to choose a side. Asked by a movie to betray your own race.
Avatar was a film that really tried to make you feel that you'd betray your own race for the sake of a group of aliens who just wanted to co-exist, but ultimately it failed in that emotional quest, mostly because you can only relate to a blue cat so much before you snap back to reality.
The new Apes movies use such advanced animation and motion capture that you really feel for the monkeys. Their facial expressions, emotions and actions play out so clearly that you feel like an ape really is having a full-on conversation with a human. The apes almost feel more real than the people they're talking to.
The apes create a perfect society where apes don't harm other apes, family is held up as a core value for the society and violence is viewed as abhorrent. The WETA Digital team, as well as actors like the great Andy Serkis (Caesar) and the rest of the ape actors deserve to be showered in awards for the visual work on Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.
The motion capture for the Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes isn't like mo-cap on other movies: it's happening live, outside and away from traditional green-screened sound stages. Because the new film was set mostly in the rain, WETA crews had to harden the motion capture — or mo-cap — rigs, while also making them portable. The crews were working in wet, muddy, inhospitable conditions, so they had to move fast and work in a more fluid way than they did last time.
We spoke to WETA Digital VFX supervisor, Erik Winquist, about the process involved in creating amazing new mo-cap technology for Dawn.
Erik Winquist, WETA Digital
It was also great to see the film set after the rise of the Simian Flu from the end of Rise of The Planet Of The Apes. We've already got a fistful of viral apocalypse films. Anything set after the world has ended is more enjoyable in my books.
Another good thing about the new Apes movie is that much of the film's climax isn't featured in the trailer. Things happen which still shock you with the ape colony and the battle between Apes and Humans. It's a really fresh way to market a film, and Fox needs a lot of credit for that.
The last film we saw that did this was Tron: Legacy, where the creators made shots for the trailer that never appeared in the final cut of the film, while also not including anything from the film's final few reels to keep the ending a surprise.
The only real criticism we have with Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is that it constantly takes breaks in otherwise interesting action scenes for talking. The plot development shouldn't break the flow of a film, it should be woven into the action in a way that keeps you interested. Also, the apes communicate via sign language, and towards the end of the film the concept of believable sign language goes out the window. Subtle hand movements are converted into huge, meaningful subtitles between the apes. Disbelief suspension will be required on that part.
Overall, the new Apes movie is excellent. It plunges emotional depths that the first film missed, and wraps an action film in elegant subtext about how modern society deals with things like racism and survival. It's more enjoyable than the first film in what I assume will now be a trilogy, and you should watch both back to back this weekend to get the full Apes experience.