You have to feel a little bad for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (if you can feel for a blockbuster that is sure to make hundreds of millions). Lost amongst the superhero and sci-fi shuffle, Dawn feels a bit like the summer blockbuster that no one’s talking about – yet.
But they will be.
I was invited to the Fox Studios lot (along with a handful of other journalists) to see 20 minutes of unscreened footage of the film, and it was, in a word, awesome. Here’s the exclusive breakdown.
Protip: If you want to skip past the intro and get straight to the footage breakdown, jump to the section titled THE CATALYST.
First off, for the movie fans out there, if you’ve never been to a studio compound before, they’re huge. Upon arriving at one of Fox’s gargantuan parking garages, I was handed a map and directions by the accommodating parking attendant, and set out to find the Zanuck Theater, like the crappier, B-movie version of Frodo heading to Mordor.*
The sense of adventure was somewhat mitigated by the helpfully-placed signs directing visitors to the theater, but it all came back in a rush when I reached the theater and realized the unassuming man in a dark blazer cheerfully greeting friends was none other than Andy Serkis himself.
I should take a moment to point out that some entertainment journalists have been doing this for decades and have become jaded and cynical, which is understandable, but a shame. As a relative newbie, I am not one of them. So as I said hello to him and he said hello back, my brain was screaming, “Gollum! This man was Gollum! Holy s%*t, GOLLUM!!” It was a really cool moment, and I hope that there’s always a small part of me that will never stop internally freaking out in excitement like that, a little touched with wonder at how lucky I am to be doing this.
And then they confiscated our phones before heading into the theater, which reminded me that though there are amazing moments, it’s still a business, and the potential for pirated footage is headed off at the pass with a quickness.
*To any Fox Studio execs who may or may not be reading this, I am in no way implying you may be Sauron, chief lieutenant of the first Dark Lord, Morgoth. In no way.
Once in the theater, we were given a lovely, impassioned introduction by the man himself, with Serkis reminding us of one of the best parts about doing this for a living: We were the first people in the world (outside of the production itself) getting to see this footage.
He spoke of it in a way that showed just how proud he was of the film. Hugely ambitious in scope and scale, almost every scene was shot at a live location, with very little set work done. He mentioned that he’s gotten to see a rough cut of the final film and it’s in great shape, which should calm down the internet Chicken Littles wondering if the film is in trouble due to reshoots. (Spoiler: It’s not.) With it being, in his words, “a film that means something,” it says “a lot about the human condition,” a film for people who want a little more meaning among the spectacle.
He had equally high praise for WETA, by far the world’s leading experts in facial recognition technology and mocap work. And then he said something that piqued my interest, as I’d never quite thought of it in this way before: “Mocap has become the equivalent of makeup and costume.” Truly, the technology has become so advanced that it’s no longer a rough, humanoid thing on screen approximating human emotions, but we’re now seeing the tiniest tics and minute changes of the actors’ faces and body language through the CGI veneer. The strength of their performances, none moreso than Serkis’, combine with the eye-popping visual element of the ape CGI to produce something seamless and fully engaging.
He introduced five clips to us, and though the CGI wasn’t fully rendered yet, it was still damned impressive. Even unfinished, we could see the scope of the final product, and let me tell you, if you weren’t excited about this film before now, get excited.
Ready? Here we go:
The first clip introduces us to two chimps spearfishing and playfully teasing one another. As the scene cuts to them walking up a forest path with their catch, they come round a bend to find themselves face-to-face with terrified human, Carver, who immediately proceeds to establish himself as “the weak-willed, twitchy a-hole who ruins EVERYTHING” character trope that is omnipresent in survival movies by freaking out and shooting ape Ash in the shoulder.
Cut to a shot of the ape village, which finds seasoned ruler, Caesar, coming out of his home to a chaotic scene of chimps and apes going berserk as word quickly spreads of the human threat.
Cut back to the forest and back to the humans, who are quickly surrounded by an understandably angry tribe of apes, who appear out of the mist and the trees like vengeance itself. The group’s de facto leader, Malcolm, played by rising star Jason Clarke, tries to diffuse the tension of the situation by slowly approaching his simian counterpart in Caesar and setting down his gun, much to the dismay of the other humans. However, it doesn’t work out so well when Ceasar finally speaks – and speak he does, thunderously shouting, “GO! Go NOW!” At which point the humans understandably decide, “F**k it, humans OUT!” and run away as fast as they can, with Malcolm’s son dropping a bag full of his personal belongings in the hurry to get the hell away from the crazy, screaming ape with the red warpaint on his face. Caesar picks up the bag and tells Koba, his right-hand ape, to follow the humans.
We fast-forward to a council scene back at the apes’ village, where Caesar and his most trusted are discussing what to do. It’s clear that in the decade since the last film, the civilization of the apes has leapt forward, most notably in their ability to communicate, which they do through a cobbled-together, but highly advanced system of sign language, simian noises, and human speech.
Koba, his militant friend, is arguing passionately for going to war with the humans. But this is not the Caesar of the first film, shy and timid at points. He is weathered by the task of shaping and creating a peaceful world for his apes, and he’s loathe to let that idyllic world come crashing down. He sits, quietly listening to the rising chatter around him, until he finally speaks out, and when he does, it’s clear the other apes respect him, as all fall silent. He reminds the other apes that they stand to lose everything they’ve built: “Home. Family. Future.” He then tells them he’ll decide what to do by morning.
Cut scene to Koba, following Caesar to his home. And here we are finally shown a close-up of Koba’s face, the terrible scars and twisted remnants of being a laboratory animal. He is bloodthirsty and vicious, yes, but what has been done to him is beyond horrific, and we start to understand his desire for revenge. He reminds Caesar that he was kept, tortured for years by humans, and it was Caesar who saved him. That he’d follow Caesar anywhere, but the apes must show strength.
Caesar clasps his friend’s arm in a warm grip: “We will, Koba.”
Meanwhile, back at the humans’ quickly-crumbling compound, the humans are, well…they’re basically screwed. They’re holed up in a tower, with Malcolm and Dreyfus, played by the inimitable Gary Oldman, looking down from above at something we can’t yet see as alarm claxons blare. “That’s a lot more than 80,” says an agitated Dreyfus.
Cut to the compound doors slowly opening, with Malcolm now on the ground and waiting to see what confronts him. Then we see what Dreyfus was talking about. The compound is completely surrounded by apes, with Caesar and a phalanx of his council lined up in front of the human compound on horseback, because the apes have evolved to the point they can ride freaking horses now. As the seriously brave or seriously stupid Malcolm looks around, the camera pans up to see hundreds of apes are clustered atop the busted-out highrises around them.
Caesar approaches, and it’s at this point that you have to give Malcolm credit, because had it been me standing there, you’d have seen a stain quickly spreading on my pants. The two size each other up, and you see an understanding pass between them.
“No one wants war,” says Ceasar, “but will fight if must.” He tosses the lost bag at Malcolm’s feet, but his message is clear. The apes control the woods, and the humans are to stay in the city, which is quickly running out of resources and food.
Fast-forward a bit later, and we find there’s been a bit of a thaw in the cold war between humans and apes. Caesar has reaffirmed for us his noble, moralistic streak and saved the humans from an explosion that surely would have killed them. As Malcolm turns to thank him, Caesar’s adorable, infant son (the “Awwww”-inspiring little fellow seen in this poster) scrambles out of his wife’s arms and bounces over to the humans, soon climbing all over Ellie (Keri Russell), who laughs with delight. Not so much Twitchy A-hole™ Carver, who recoils as if the playful infant is wearing twin bombs made of pure Rage virus. Ellie and Malcolm’s son exchange exasperated smiles, but if this scene doesn’t make you want to immediately throttle Carver (again), then you weren’t paying attention.
THE BONDING MOMENT
We ended with another touching, hopeful moment that almost surely is setting us up for crushing disappointment when we see the full film. Maurice, the wise, fan-favorite orangutan from the first film, is slowly making is way toward the makeshift camp of Malcolm and his family. His son appears to be waiting outside for Maurice, and the two hesitate at about ten feet apart, staring at each other uncertainly while a dreary rain falls.
Finally, Malcolm’s son holds out a book to Maurice. “For yesterday,” he says. Perhaps referring to a role Maurice played in saving the humans? Another, as-yet-unknown scene. Soon, the tentative air between the two melts away as Maurice hunkers down next to the boy, who soon busies himself with reading to Maurice, teaching the benevolent ape more human language.
Malcolm wakes up and realizes his son is gone, then looks out of the tent flap to witness the touching scene. He wakes Ellie up, and the pair of them watch the bonding moment between son and ape, the tears in Ellie’s eyes underscoring the poignancy of the scene.
WARNING: Don’t read this if you don’t want a great scene spoiled for you.
As a bonus, we were treated to the tense, fantastic scene that was shown at CinemaCon and basically confirmed the logical conclusion laid out for us in the war council scene: Koba’s years of torture at the hands of humans and his internal rage have rendered him, uh, a little south of sane. Like Antarctica south.
It opens with two humans, armed with rifles, kicking back at some sort of blockade, clearly bored as they shoot the breeze. Suddenly, an ape appears in the doorway, and the men tense up. But the ape, who appears to be drunk or playful, or both, capers and cavorts toward them like a performing circus monkey, making the men laugh and even share their whiskey with the ape when he flops down and good-naturedly starts laughing with the men.
For that’s when the ape, whom we’ve by now realized is the unstable Koba, quickly whips one man’s machine gun out of his hands. He continues to play with it for a few moments, by all appearances a slightly dim-witted but good-natured ape not realizing what he has.
Until he turns the machine gun on the remaining armed human and, still smiling, murders him in cold blood as the other guard looks on in horror.
While he could very well could have been acting on Caesar’s orders, the feel of the scene made me wonder if Koba hadn’t simply snapped and gone rogue, tired of Caesar’s policy of non-violence. It was shocking and horrifying, and that’s exactly why it worked so wonderfully well.
It’s hard to get a room full of nerdy, nitpicky journalists and bloggers to really be blown away by something, but blown away, we were. The insane detail of the technology and CGI is offset by the lavish, natural settings, and the strength of the story. Like its apes, this sequel has evolved, the blockbuster for people who want a better blockbuster.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes hits theaters on July 11.