It was a pretty cool surprise when Rise of the Planet of the Apes came along in 2011 as a surprisingly strong movie–that, even better, ignored Tim Burton’s lousy 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes and concentrated on being a prequel to the 1968 original. For those who don’t remember, that first Planet of the Apes movie is still an amazing sci-fi classic, with Charlton Heston starring as a cynical astronaut. He spends most of the movie showing disdain for how the apes on an allegedly alien planet are as stupid as humans, before having his worst instincts confirmed when he discovers that he’s been stuck on a futuristic Earth all along.
Now we get Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continuing to set up Heston’s world–and it’s a surprisingly touching war movie that provides even more contrast to the ’68 original. Even more amazingly, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes manages to make 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes a much better movie, thanks to providing some human context to the underground dwellers in that bizarre follow-up to the first film.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place about a decade after Rise, which smartly set up a plague that was wiping out humans just as apes began to gain intelligence. At this point, though, the intelligent apes are still a single tribe living outside of San Francisco–where Gary Oldman is leading survivors into rebuilding civilization. That new civilization needs electricity, though, which sends a squad of survivors into ape territory to try and get a dam running again.
Dawn is mostly about ape leader Caesar learning to trust humans while trying to maintain order in his tribe. That includes a few great characters from the original Rise–specifically, Maurice the Orangutan. (James Franco just shows up in some old video.) We also get the return of Koba, who’s the pissed-off simian that got the crowd cheering when he kicked a helicopter off the Golden Gate Bridge in Rise. The crowds will be cheering Koba a lot less in this one.
There’s a lot of political intrigue and shocking moments, and Dawn deserves all of the hype that it’s getting from the critics. We’re a little sorry to see this origin series shaking up some of the Planet of the Apes history, though. The best thing about Beneath the Planet of the Apes was that the movie set up the time-travel loop that would lead to Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (released in 1972, and set in 1991). Those are both really fun movies, but Apes fans need to admit that Rise and Dawn deserve to replace them as a superior timeline.
It’s also fun to see how Dawn mirrors 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, which was kind of a kiddie movie that tried to provide a happy ending to the conflict between Man and Ape. Battle is still pretty crappy, but kind of fun, and now has some historical importance. So casual fans can enjoy Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as a really smart action sci-fi movie, and Apes fanatics should be be kind of ecstatic. We’ll always have Escape and Conquest as a time and a place. There’s nothing we can do about Tim Burton’s remake, of course, but maybe the apes will destroy all the copies when they take over for real.