Hopefully you guys have all seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes by now. If not, fix that! It’s the best movie of the summer (barring Snowpiercer, which is a very different sort of thing). Matt Reeves’ sequel to 2011’s sleeper hit showcases great action, strong characters, and above-average intelligence. And yes, there’s flaws, too. It’s not perfect.
Still, the flaws aren’t my business today, because what that struck me most of all about this movie was how well it functioned as a sequel. With all the franchises and spinoffs and whatever else we’re swamped with these days, you’d think more folks would actually know how to use the sequel format correctly. But, uh… you’d be wrong.
Matt Reeves and his crew got it very, very right. Here’s how:
THEY ESTABLISHED A NEW STATUS QUO
Dawn starts off in a completely different place than Rise. We have new faces, new places, and new stakes.* Now, this is partially due to the dynamism of the first story, but major credit is due to these filmmakers for simply refusing to go backwards.
This seems like an easy thing to get right, so I’m always a bit surprised when a sequel neglects to actually incorporate the changes its characters and world went through last time. I think of a movie like Kung Fu Panda 2, which sorta tries to have it both ways with things like Po’s newfound martial arts skills. Or look at the new king of terrible sequels, Star Trek Into Darkness, which doesn’t follow up on the utter destruction of Vulcan in any satisfying way (among many other things).
These are semi-anomalies, though, as most solid sequels make the attempt to establish a “new normal,” even if the storyline still winds up copying the original (more on that in a second). Where Apes really ups the ante is in its willingness to throw us into the future of its world a bit. At the movie’s open, we find humanity’s numbers dwindling; its culture all but disappeared. Add that to the to-be-expected evolution in the society of the apes themselves, and you’ve got a great starting point for a completely fresh story.
If you’re willing to actually see it through. Spoilers ahead, because…
THEY ACTUALLY ADVANCED THE PLOT
Since it’s already come up… we all remember Star Trek: Into Darkness sucking, right? I’m sure some of you found a way to enjoy it, but roll with me here. Aside from basic construction stuff, one of the most depressing things about that trip to the theatre was the feeling that I had just seen THIS EXACT MOVIE when the first one was released in 2009.
In that sequel, Spock and Uhura hadn’t gone anywhere interesting, Kirk was still a womanizing asshole with no personal responsibility, and Captain Pike gave him another pep talk over drinks about his potential. The plot remained stuck on Earth for a huge chunk of the story. Even the ending is basically the same, what with the Enterprise crew coming together and heading off on a sure-to-be-important mission. This is what stagnation looks like.
What Dawn does is the exact opposite. While the first movie was essentially a prison break storyline combined with a science-gone-wrong thriller, this one tells the much weightier story of the first shots fired in a war. Even once we get past setting up our “new normal,” things continue to shift in the human camp, the ape camp, and the tense space in between. Every turn in this story is the sort of thing that can’t be reversed.
This is the sort of bold movie where friends become liabilities, and tension turns into battle. You’ll notice that the opening and closing shots are the same: an extreme close-up of Caesar’s eyes. What those eyes have seen in the interim goes far beyond the typical “maintain the brand” efforts most other franchises put out.
THEY PICKED GOOD CALLBACKS AND USED THEM WELL
Change is great, but if things got TOO different there’d be no franchise at all. Fortunately, Dawn avoids that pitfall, too, employing callbacks as effectively as any movie I’ve seen in a long time.
A lot of the ape society seemed to be built on ideas that Caesar had spread in the first movie, with the most prominent being that powerful statement that “apes together… strong.” This was a key idea in Rise, and this film brilliantly hands it to the ultimate villain as a way of challenging Caesar’s authority. Its a small thing, but including it adds a whole new layer of meaning and continuity.
Ditto the use of the “Caesar’s window” emblem. The sight of the actual window got an audible response in my theatre, but recalling it as a symbol of rebellion worked even better. Aside from, again, highlighting the continuity, the window symbol helped narratively reinforce the idea that Caesar has indeed returned. If film is a visual medium (it is and it isn’t, but let’s go with it), then it’s hard to think of a more economical image this year than that simple hieroglyphic.
I’d be remiss if I let this section go without mentioning the lovely callback to James Franco’s character from the first movie. That was just perfect. We’d been primed to think about him, it made contextual sense as a result of Caesar’s first trip home since the first movie, and it really highlighted the movie’s statements about the presence of good and bad people on both sides of the divide.
THEY REFINED OLD IDEAS AND ADDED NEW ONES
I’ve already talked about “apes together strong,” but let’s return to that idea. In the first movie, one of the main things Caesar realized was that the humans would never truly treat him as one of their own. That we are simply two different animals, and the tribalism that comes about as a result of that schism is too strong a force to be overcome.
This time around, Caesar has to realize that humans and apes aren’t all that different. Last movie ended with triumphant freedom for the apes. This movie turns that isolation into one of the biggest problems. In effect, it turns the stand on the Golden Gate Bridge into a bit of a false victory. Sure, they found themselves a new home, but as any homeowner can attest, FINDING the home is a challenge that in many ways pales next to the trials faced by actually running one.
Look to How to Train Your Dragon 2 as an example of how NOT to do this. There, the filmmakers ostensibly tried to show a similar challenge to their original theme; essentially, careful understanding can still fail when confronted with someone who refuses to work with you. Sadly, that movie never really justified the actions of its villain, leaving us with a shallow film that tries for something mature and basically whiffs it.
Conversely, Dawn truly challenges the thematic statements of its predecessor. Rise wasn’t exactly a simple movie, but it was one with a pretty definitive conclusion (at least in Caesar’s story). Dawn showed just how illusory that conclusion was, and gives us an intelligent extension of pretty much every major idea in the first movie.**
Actions have consequences, and movies have sequels. Like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, let’s keep those two ideas together from now on.
*Is the implication here that Franco’s character from the first movie is among the dead humans? It’s never stated outright but I have to assume that’s what we’re meant to take from this. That’s… pretty ballsy.
**Except its title. Seriously, Dawn and Rise are pretty much the same thing.