Full disclosure: I really only needed 20 seconds’ worth of footage to be fully convinced about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Of all the potential blockbusters on tap for this summer’s movie season, it's the closest thing to a sure bet. All of its pieces are of the highest order. Firstly, it’s coming on the heels of 2011’s surprise hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, that summer’s best big-screen spectacle and a film that I, for one, didn’t expect much from before it floored me with its lifelike ape effects, heavy emotion, and rich characterization. Most importantly, though, Rise’s open-ended and cleverly executed finale demanded a sequel, unlike most other fine Hollywood blockbusters that are driven into sequel ground for monetary reasons.
Also working in Dawn’s pre-release favor: the involvement of director Matt Reeves, whose previous films Cloverfield (2008) and Let Me In (2010) are two of the new millennium’s strongest genre efforts, namely the latter, which somehow bested its universally adored Swedish predecessor, Let the Right One In (2008). Then, there’s Dawn’s impressive cast, including Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, and best-actor-of-his-younger-generation Kodi Smit-McPhee, and, thankfully, no longer led by Rise’s distractingly miscast James Franco. This time, the hero’s played by the always reliable Jason Clarke, who killed it in Zero Dark Thirty and is about to become a big deal (he’s playing John Connor in the forthcoming Terminator reboot).
Yesterday, in Manhattan, Dawn’s backing studio, 20th Century Fox, reminded a few select journalists whom the film’s biggest asset is, though: Andy Serkis. He, of course, is the motion-capture king, back in action as the H.A.I.C. (Head Ape of Charge, obviously) “Caesar.” Thanks to Serkis' exceptional performance, Rise hit harder on a heart-tugging level than most movies not featuring any ape protagonists. The same way, I should note, Serkis' capture-suit rendering of the enormous titular gorilla in Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005) legitimately made me cry. (All that beast wanted to do was love Naomi Watts and do belly-flops on Central Park ice skating rinks, dammit!)
Before Fox’s nearly 20-minute Dawn preview, Serkis, who couldn’t make it in person (probably because he’s popping bottles with the rest of the new Star Wars cast overseas), introduced the footage in a taped video message. What he actually said echoed the sentiment of, “Thanks so much for being here, we’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished,” but he should've just said, “It’s about to be some shit!”
Because, indeed, it was. Comprised of five quick scenes, none of which were 100% finished (some of the apes haven’t been fully digitized yet) and all of which were shown in mere 2D, the Dawn sneak preview provided a strong sense of the film’s narrative without giving away any spoilers or money-shots. No, that reported James Franco cameo wasn't a part of it.
Nor, for that matter, was there much in the way of humor. Per everything seen so far, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will be much, much darker than Rise. It's written all over Caesar's new war-painted face.
Then and now:
Gone are those cutesy bonding sessions between Franco and his lovable pet ape—now, there's a murderous primate (not Caesar, mind you) mowing down someone with a machine gun.
The sequel takes place 10 years after the events in Rise. America is now a desolate wasteland. The apes, still led by the empowered Caesar, live in the woods while the human survivors populate the rundown cities. In the apes’ domain, they’ve constructed their own homes and meeting places out of sticks and trees. They also communicate through primal grunts that are subtitled for us mere humans.
The first clip starts with two apes, Koba (motion-captured by Toby Kebbell) and his son, Ash (Doc Shaw), walking through the woods when they suddenly come across human Carver (Kirk Acevedo). Carver, turning into a shook one once he sees them, draws his handgun and fires a bullet into Ash’s chest. “They shot Ash! They shot my son!” shouts Koba in ape-speak, signaling Caesar and his minions to the scene, where Carver’s now joined by his own companions, including Malcolm (Clarke), his lover, Ellie (Russell), and Malcolm’s son (Smit-McPhee). There’s a tense standoff—Malcolm orders his peeps to put their weapons down, prompting Caesar to shout “Go!”
Carver shooting Ash sets the tone for the rest of the Dawn footage. In their wooded sanctuary, Caesar steps in to calm his followers down as they debate over how to retaliate. “If apes go to war,” says Caesar, “could lose we all built.” Nodding his head toward their surroundings, he ends the discussions with, “Home. Family. Future.” Koba then follows Caesar away from the crowd and offers his disagreement: “Koba do anything Caesar ask. But ape must show strength.”
“We will, Koba,” Caesar replies.
In the most intense scene of the day, that’s exactly what they do. Malcolm and the antagonist human Dreyfus (Oldman) are on a balcony, glaring outside with visible shock and fear. And then we see why. Crowded around the humans’ building are countless apes on horseback, with Caesar, naturally, in the front. By Dreyfus’ count, “That’s a hell of a lot more than 80.” Malcolm steps beyond the gates to speak with Caesar, but the apes does all the talking. “Apes do not want war! But we fight if we must!”
Caesar looks towards the woods: “Ape…home,” followed by an acknowledgment of the in-shambles city: “Humans…home.” Then, said with a don’t-fuck-with-me intonation, “Do not come back.”
The footage wasn’t all dark, though. There’s a sweet moment where Malcolm and his crew are seated on a beach and playing with a baby ape, and another during which Smit-McPhee’s character reads Charles Burns’ cult-classic graphic novel Black Hole with the massive orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval). It’s enough to confirm that Rise’s poignant human-and-ape character development remains intact in Dawn.
My personal favorite scene, however, had none of that tenderness.
Shown without any context, the preview’s most intriguing bit starts off with two guys drinking a bottle of booze underneath an overpass. One of them’s armed with an automatic weapon. Off in the distance, there’s an ape approaching them, but it’s not walking. Rather, it’s prancing around, playfully doing somersaults, and acting silly. As the ape reaches the confused, nervously laughing dudes, it laughs along with them, even taking a swig of their liquor. Having given the humans a false sense of comfort, the ape then grabs the gun and unloads a few rounds into the one guy’s chest.
It’s the old okie-doke, Apes style, and it’s darkly comedic in a malevolent way that Rise isn’t.
An educated guess: Malcolm’s cohorts don’t obey Caesar’s “Do not come back” order. The deceptive ape’s homicidal trickery hints at some serious man-versus-primate violence, adding a new layer to the general anarchy on display in Dawn’s teaser trailer.
Once Fox’s presentation ended, I wanted to raise hell myself. Why? Because I’ve seen firsthand just how badass Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is going to be, and now I have to wait 72 long days until I can see the whole damn thing.
July 11 can’t get here soon enough.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)