With all due respect to Stanley Kubrick, his apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey have nothing on the ones created by Matt Reeves and the special effects team from Weta Digital.
Granted about 40 years have passed since Kubrick’s epic film came out, and within that time special effects technology has advanced light years, but you’ve got to hand it to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – its apes feel more human than some Hollywood actors do.
While Kubrick’s apes actually were humans dressed in ape costumes who just jumped up and down, wildly flailing their arms, Reeves went a completely different route.
Using performance capture technology – which essentially involves a helmet with a camera attachment that closely monitors facial expressions in the midst of filming, which is then integrated into the animation – Reeves created apes that evoke far more emotion than their human adversaries.
Better off without humans
The film takes place ten years after the previous edition (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), during which time a virus that resulted from testing on apes has broken out and wiped out the majority of the human race.
We encounter the apes living in the Muir woods of San Francisco, where they have developed a relatively advanced society composed of chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas.
Beyond the epic cliff-side village they have constructed, they speak basic English, have written inscriptions on the walls and, to top it all off, ride horses.
Immediately we can tell that these are more than just apes, as Koba (Kebbell) saves Caesar (Serkis) from a bear attack, and we see something of a mix between relief, appreciation and laughter on Caesar’s face – the mix of which creates a distinctly human expression.
Back in the city of San Francisco, the few remaining humans have started a decent-sized colony with food, water and shelter – the problem is that they are running out of fuel (their only energy source).
In search of an abandoned dam in the Muir woods, a few humans unknowingly go walking through ape territory. When they are confronted, Carver (Acevedo), being a trigger-happy American, shoots one of these apes and chaos ensues.
The humans are given a chance to leave the woods by the oddly sympathetic apes on the grounds that they never come back – something that they cannot afford to do.
What follows is the push and pull between these two populations as the increasingly desperate humans insist upon crossing into ape territory to tap into the energy source. Tensions rise, eventually leading to all out war.
The film isn’t quite as simple as good vs evil, though – as the tension escalates, there is no picking sides between the two warring populations.
Instead, we see the good and bad within both sides and every character, whether ape or human, is given just enough background to, if not justify, at least explain their behaviour.
Special effects Weta-dream
When the war breaks out, so too does Weta Digital, with the last half hour being a bit of a special effects wet-dream.
Explosions, apes firing bazookas off of galloping horses, tanks blowing up, massive skyscrapers tumbling down to the ground – you get it all in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, though at times this feels like Weta Digital is just looking for an excuse to flex its CGI muscles.
Aside from this bit of classic Hollywood exploitation, the film is genuinely philosophical: it tells the poignant and all too familiar story of two misunderstood populations that get involved in a war that could have easily been avoided.
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
Dir: Matt Reeves; US sci-fi/action, 2014, 130mins
Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Toby Kebbel, Kirk Acevedo
Premiered 17 July