Is the second film in a franchise the hardest or is the one that starts the whole thing off harder? And, for that matter, is a film a franchise after two outings? These days I’d say yes. At least the studios like to think so. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is no different. Indeed, it’s very much following the formula (not that that’s a bad thing).
- Film 1: Set up the world, introduce the characters, keep things focused on the lead character and (largely) their individual journey
- Film 2: Expand the world, make the stakes bigger, give the lead character much more responsibility, let the antagonists gain the upper hand (usually)
- Film 3: Bring the story full circle, perhaps scaling things back to make them more personal and about the lead character’s individual journey again
Anyway, that’s my rough, it’s-early-morning-don’t-judge-me take on the tried and tested trilogy formula. If we’re talking large franchise (i.e. beyond three films), then the formula is anyone’s guess. But I’m getting off topic.
As far as reinvigorating a franchise goes Rise of the Planet of the Apes surprised everyone. After Tim Burton’s commercially successful but otherwise rather unmemorable attempt back in 2001, some said this story was pretty much dead and had run its course. Actors in full prosthetic makeup (decent makeup I’ll grant you) attempting to emote for all they were worth. Not bad, just not that good. Hats off to Burton for trying though.
But now… Hurrah and rejoice. With the rise of motion capture technology – led by the Godfather of mo-cap Andy Serkis – this tale could now be told in the most realistic way yet.
Following events in Rise of Apes where the apes – led by Ceasar (Serkis) – bust out of San Francisco by way of the Golden Gate bridge, the story in Dawn of Apes picks up around ten years on. We’re told that much of humanity has been wiped out by ape flu, leaving a small percentage of the population intact and immune to the virus.
We start with Ceasar and his band of merry apes, now settled in a colony in the forest outside San Fran. Straight away it’s clear that – as a group – they’re well organised, intelligent, have a clear community structure and are, well, highly similar to humans.
They largely communicate in sign language, a method which gives them a graceful and dignified nature. Along with the community, individual ape characters have evolved since the first film. With Ceasar; long gone is the young revolutionary that broke his brothers and sisters out of captivity. Here we have Ceasar the leader, an ape in command, and an ape with bigger responsibilities. He’s now a family ape (with a wife and teenage son).
Returning to my franchise bullet points for a moment, director Matt Reeves had a tricky task in more ways than one: expanding the apes’ world yet keeping the story personal, shifting the focus to the apes but keeping the humans very much in the story, giving more depth to the ape characters. Hell, even just getting the damn technology to a place where it would seem not only plausible, but very much believable was a big ask. (Remember, this is no Avatar where you can create the world from scratch. The director filmed most of this on location, making the motion capture aspect monumentally difficult.)
So if you stop and think about it for a second, this film could have gone south very quickly. Even with advances in technology you still needed to buy into Ceasar’s plight. But buy into it you will, or at least most of you will. It might seem like a broken record to say this but, yet again, Andy Serkis has shown the depth of his ability as an actor – and continued to showcase motion capture as a viable method of filmmaking (way more than 3D at any rate).
He also gets help from some hairy chums along the way, particularly the real antagonist of the film. Not human this time but ape, in the form of his volatile lieutenant Koba (played with real verve and conviction by Toby Kebbell). If there was ever an ape that had truly gone to the dark side, it’s Koba. The hate in his eyes is chilling yet you sympathise with him, to a degree. Praise should rightly go to Kebbell for his portrayal of an ape that’s become consumed by hate.
On the other side you have the humans, trying their darndest to get an old dam working to get power to their little colony. The story largely unfolds from the leader of their group, Malcolm’s (Jason Clarke) point of view. His quest to fix the dam is really just the starting point to kick things off and allow the apes to turn on each other, demonstrating they’ve got just as many flaws as the humans they’ve come to fear.
So in terms of difficult second album syndrome, Matt Reeves has done an exemplary job. He’s juggled numerous difficult elements: general plot, continuation of story, development of characters, mastering of technology and so on. It helps to have a decent script and the Godfather of mo-cap in your corner of course, but he’s still successfully steered the ship into a great position for the next instalment of this franchise.