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18 July 2014updated 14 Sep 2021 3:21pm

Monkey business: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is smart, ravishing and bleak

The latest addition to the Planet of the Apes franchise is the toughest yet - the transition from playful ape and human interaction to bloody horror comes across as scarily plausible.

By Ryan Gilbey

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (12A)
dir: Matt Reeves

Caesar, Ash, Rocket, Blue Eyes. No, not the members of a new boy band but the hirsute protagonists of the latest instalment in a franchise that is both long-running and long of title. After previous outings such as Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Slightly to the Left of the Planet of the Apes, we now have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Beginning with the eradication of mankind by the simian flu that spread at the end of the last film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the new picture is the bleakest in a series that was never exactly all-singing, all-dancing.

It is also smart and visually ravishing – at times even Constable-esque in its moist, verdant landscapes – without ever stinting on thrills. The only audiences likely to be disappointed are those expecting a dumbing-down or a lightening-up. Let’s put it this way: if the series ever spawns a movie entitled Light at the End of the Tunnel of the Planet of the Apes, I’m a monkey’s uncle.

One of the surprises of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which rebooted the series and felt like the documentary Project Nim remade as an action blockbuster, was the moment halfway through when the laboratory apes began to communicate among themselves in sign language, subtitled for our benefit. It was odd to eavesdrop on what the animals thought about their human captors – about us.

This time, it’s a different world. The apes dwell in sophisticated forest encampments and talk of humans much as we might now mention Woolworths, mockingly but with a tinge of nostalgia. The merest shrug between apes translates into many subtitled sentences; they converse so economically, it’s like being in the company of several hundred Robert Mitchums. But they have also increased their spoken vocabulary and can say “family”, “future”, “home” and other rudimentary nouns. Never mind monkeys, typewriters and the collected works of Shakespeare: this lot is already capable of turning out a Tony Parsons novel.

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Caesar remains the charismatic, even-tempered leader, cognisant (unlike many of his fellow apes) of the good that humans can do, as well as the ill. He is played by the British actor Andy Serkis, the undisputed king of motion-capture performance, for which an actor wears a skin-tight, blue suit studded with lights (imagine a raver on the late-1980s acid house scene), enabling whatever he or she does to be translated by computer into an animated performance. The technology is so advanced that we can no longer see on-screen where the actors end and the apes begin.

Serkis (a former Mike Leigh regular whose motion-capture career began when he was cast as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films) nabs the most brooding close-ups. He gives Caesar a trademark incredulous stare that gets a big laugh. Head bowed and eyes raised, he seems to be saying, “You’re shitting me, right?” And his pathos is bottomless. The film ends with his soulful peepers staring out at us, imploring and accusing.

When the apes discover a settlement of humans not far from the forest, they are torn between those represented by Caesar, who want to help the stragglers, and those led by Koba (Toby Kebbell), who makes Stalin look as cute as a PG Tips chimp. The rest of the film explores these tensions with admirable thoroughness. Arguments are lucid on both sides, actions intelligible. Everything will be going fine and then a human will jeopardise it by doing something rash. Or else the humans will be playing ball when Koba or his allies will lash out. One scene showing apes mingling with humans is terrifying in the suddenness with which it tips from tomfoolery to horror – and highly plausible.

Can the apes and the humans ever co­exist peacefully? Don’t bet on it – the franchise would be over if they did. Sometimes, though, the unlikely happens. Caesar finds a dusty camcorder, unused for decades, which bleeps magically into life at first try. Then there’s that defunct movie series about a world overrun by apes, the subject of a dreadful salvage attempt in 2001 by Tim Burton, which has now delivered a pair of cerebral and suspenseful action thrillers. Anything’s possible.