I went to the movie theater yesterday and I saw something amazing and rare. It was something that I had not seen since the nineteen seventies. No, I'm not talking about the movie we saw, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I'm talking about the audience. When the film was over they all stood up, and then, clapped and cheered. This might bring up the joke of, "that was because the movie was over." It was not. The movie really was that good. Now I would not go on record and call this movie an epic but, I would say that it was excellent. Coming from me, a guy who routinely bashes remakes and reboots (sometimes for no other reason than they are) that should be telling you something.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, there were five original ape movies despite the fact that only one sequel was ever planned and that was not even the second movie. There was the original Planet of the Apes which was, in every right, a classic of the silver screen and worthy of mention in the same sentence as Gone With The Wind, Star Wars, and any super hit you care to name. It was followed by Beneath, Escape From, Conquest, and Battle Of. It was the fourth movie, Conquest, that was the only planned sequel. The rest came about because Planet and Escape were huge box office hits and, quite possibly, the two best movies of the franchise. The Tim Burton remake came along about a decade or so ago and killed any possibility of a reboot for many years to come. Then came Rise which was the direct precursor too this current film. It was descent and certainly much better than Tim Burton's banana bonanza but it did not clock in at anything close to great. Dawn takes that story and moves it a step further in a very positive direction.
Strangely enough, when it was decided to reboot the franchise, they began with the last two films of the original set of movies. Rise was take directly from Conquest and this movie, Dawn, was taken directly from Battle. They did this because the one element they tossed from the first set of films was the time travel element. In the original movies, the last two explained how the Apes became the dominant primates of Earth and given the Twilight Zone ending of the first movie (no kidding Rod Serling wrote the screenplay) they had to do it in this order. With this movie they get to start at the beginning and move right to the end. They don't bother with the surprises of the original, and wisely so, because everyone already knows them. They also get quite a few other things right and I was amazed that they did this while actually holding to the elements of the films they are based on.
The book that all of the movies were based on, was essentially two people on a pleasure cruise that found, and were reading, a note in a bottle. It gives you a shocking ending that Serling not only captured but, did one better. Beyond that, the two stories are dissimilar in most aspects yet, they both have something to say. The novel questioned man's very place in the order of things while Serling was really only talking about the civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties and the issues revolving around it. Tim Burton tried to reinvigorate Serling's original theme only, he forgot something. When he made his movie it was no longer the sixties and nobody cared (there are quite a few in Hollywood who need to learn that lesson). Rise did not really have much commentary, it was only trying to tell a story, and essentially set up the plot. I believe that is exactly what they tried to do with Dawn but, in the process, they managed so much more as the mechanics of story telling, done correctly, brought out something very real and timeless. Unlike those who try and be "relevant" which means that your plot is doomed to be dated and very quickly, Dawn touched on issues that are basically timeless and they used the story of another species to contrast who we really are.
The basic story of Dawn is really one that is asking a single question. How can two societies, with similar problems, relatively enlightened and wise leadership, and both wishing for security and peace, find themselves at war with each other. While the answer that this movie provides, which is basically "due to the lowest common denominators," is debatable, it spins it's story in a very intelligent way. There are some antagonists in this movie (both Ape and Human) but, there are no real bad guys. Dawn effectively makes you care about both species and you not only understand their motivations but, you sympathize with them. You also spend the movie hoping and rooting for the real good guy of the film, and that is peace. You do this despite the fact that you know war is coming and almost from the start. It's pretty much the dilemma that the main ape character, Caesar, finds himself in. There is no in your face references to current political issues which would have been out of place and even inappropriate. There are a couple of scenes that comment on racism but, they are so subtle and woven into the plot that I doubt many will even realize that is what they are.
Dawn also managed to do something else right and, for Hollywood today, that's asking a lot in this category. For a movie that makes extensive use of CGI characters, you hardly notice. The action sequences are well used, well placed, and they don't overwhelm the film and make you feel as if you are watching an animation. Some of the action is also quite surprising in how it turns out. Now don't get me wrong, I have seen far better action scenes but, at it's heart, Dawn is not an action movie anyway. On that note it is many things and another of those that it did well was being an apocalyptic movie. The sets were stunning and will hold your interest. It was not a case that is very common today. It was not a guy, like me, that was sitting on his computer and trying to out do the last guy with some impossible looking place that he can make just because he has a computer to do it with. The sets feel real and as you navigate the ruins of San Francisco you feel as if this is how it would really look given the circumstances of the movie. You see familiar locations but, they don't quite look the same anymore. The movie gives you effective CGI, just enough that you don't get the claustrophobic feel of older movies, in this genre, where they lacked the ability to make realistic sets so they put all of their story in an underground bunker.
The most interesting success of Dawn will likely be the one thing that will be entirely overlooked. It did so many things very well and, at the same time, managed to hold true to the original film it was based on. That is, all by itself, a miracle given how corny the original film was. I don't say corny as in we look back now and think this because it is dated. Battle was a corny movie when it was originally released. It was a good thing that Battle was intended to be the final installment because it was most certainly a franchise killer. Dawn uses all of the elements that was in the original and pays homage to it in many scenes. For someone who appreciated the original films (yes even the bad ones) this was kind of like getting a kiss on the cheek from a pretty girl. It didn't really mean anything but, ultimately, it was better than nothing. I guess you could say it was icing on a cake that was already full of meaningful substance. If I had to recommend any movie to see this year, in a theater, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes would be it.