It’s all about the eyes. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes features some of the saddest simian eyes you’ve ever seen, belonging to crestfallen chimps, produced from pixels but emotive as hell.
Watching them are human eyes, especially those of the film’s vengeful antagonist Gary Oldman who, to paraphrase The Simpsons, hates every ape he sees, from chimpan-A to chimpanzee. The eyes are windows to troubled souls, in an unusually soulful blockbuster that can only end in conflict.
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a prequel to the 1968 film that had Burt Lancaster howling at the statue, so the ending isn’t a secret. “We know that it doesn’t become Planet Of The Humans And Apes,” says director Matt Reeves, “but there’s something poignant about exploring the moment where there could have been co-existence, and that is the central idea of the film.”
This film has big boots to fill. Its predecessor, 2011’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, was a surprise hit, its orchestration of story and spectacle resulting in a critical and commercial success. It told the story of Caesar, a chimp raised by humans and given advanced intelligence via an Alzheimer’s drug, who ends up starting a simian revolution as a virus wipes out the majority of the human race. Dawn begins 10 years later, with Caesar as the leader of a 2,000-strong ape family in San Francisco’s Muir Woods, while down in the city, a band of surviving humans are struggling to stay alive. “You see the potential for what could have been,” says Reeves, “the idea of how these two species could actually live side by side. That we could learn something from each other.”
The weight of this emotional dilemma is placed on the shoulders of a chimp. Caesar, in what could be a cinematic first, is very much the film’s heart and soul. Reeves even goes so far as to compare his problems to those of Don Corleone. “This story is much more complex for Caesar,” he says. “It’s one thing to lead a revolution; it’s another thing to be a leader and have lives at stake and to work out how to navigate this. He has to pull in both directions: to his family, and to his past and his connection to humans. It’s a complex and dangerous and difficult situation, and in that sense it’s Godfather-like. One of the things I’m hoping people will be excited about is that this is Caesar’s movie. It is his story, his world. It’s all centred on him.”
What allows you to believe everything you’re seeing, to buy into Reeves’s story and empathise with those apes, is the stunning digital work that feels like it has taken CGI and motion-capture technology to a whole new level. “Without visual effects, our main character doesn’t exist on film. That’s crazy, it’s a huge undertaking. You’re working on something and only seeing a very small percentage of what it’s ultimately gonna look like.”
Caesar is played by master of mo-cap Andy Serkis, leading a team of actors wearing LED markers on their suits and head-mounted cameras to record their facial expressions. This data was then passed on to Weta Workshop, the New Zealand effects company responsible for Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, which turned them all into hugely convincing apes. There are over 800 visual artists credited on the film, and some shots feature over 1,000 apes. “Weta is basically a town over there in Wellington,” laughs Reeves. “At the end credits, when it gets to the visual effects section, it’s like a war memorial wall.” What’s more, these complex scenes were filmed outdoors rather than in front of green screens. Stunt performers were hired from Cirque du Soleil and the parkour world to swing around the trees in a convincingly simian fashion.
“I wanted it to feel like Apocalypse Now, going into the heart of darkness – their world,” explains Reeves, “so I put it in the woods, in real places. It was difficult and I got pneumonia, but I wouldn’t change it one bit.”
Reeves put his health on the line for a film he was only drafted into as a late reserve. He joined in September 2012, after Rupert Wyatt bowed out, reportedly claiming that this summer’s release date was too soon to do it justice. Tight timing didn’t stop Reeves, who made his name directing Cloverfield and the US version of Let The Right One In, from rejecting the screenplay he was presented with. Instead he pitched his own story, centred much more on Caesar, and told them he wanted to take mo-cap outside. They said yes to everything, as long as he still made the release date. I speak to him three days before the film’s final deadline and he tells me he’s barely slept since 2012 (“I’m half out of my mind!”). But the tight schedule has also had its upsides. With no time to spare, there was no room for creative interference, either. “You see so many of these movies where you can tell that it’s become a total committee movie. But the pace of this was so fast, it had to be continually filtered through my point of my view. I’ll be very interested to see if people can feel that, because it was certainly what I tried to do.”
Reeves speaks passionately about the film’s philosophy and psychology, but there must have been moments where he snapped out of it and thought: hang on – I’m making a film about a bunch of talking primates. “You know, I never have that problem,” he replies. “I was really surprised by how emotionally affected I was by Rise. Then when I was asked to come in for this, I watched it again. And in the interim between when I first saw it and when I watched it again, my wife and I had our first son. And in watching it the second time, Caesar reminded me of my son. What I found so compelling in Andy Serkis’s performance was this struggle behind his eyes. So much was unsaid. I immediately connected that to my son. I understood in this profound way through having a son, a certain perspective of what it is to be a human being. Watching my son struggle to articulate, trying to find a way to express himself, while at the same time having so much understanding of what was around him, I realised what a powerful idea that was.
“But there are moments where my son suddenly becomes impulsive, and at certain moments I’d get really excited and go, ‘Oh my god, he’s a little animal!’ Because you almost forget. And to me that’s what’s so exciting about Planet Of The Apes. Fantasy is one thing, that the animals are in charge. But the thing about that fantasy is that we are the animals. So the secret of the story is that the movie’s all about us. Look, if I step back when you ask me that question, well yeah, talking apes is a little bizarre. But really it’s all about our nature.”
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is in cinemas from Thu
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