Set near San Francisco in 2026, eight or ten years after Rise, the world of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place after the majority of humanity has gone extinct due to a Simian flue (which is explained at the beginning in one of its most chilling sequences) and the Apes reign. It starts with a close-up on Caesar’s eyes. He’s wearing war-paint. With the other apes they’re getting ready for a hunt, though they’re using pretty advanced military hunting tactics to catch their prey. During this hunt they end up meeting a small group of humans, who are out in the woods to find a dam to get electricity for their community. Afterwards there is a an attempt at reconciliation, internal conflict, power struggles and humanity pushed to its extreme. For what could have been just another franchise film Dawn is actually a lot closer with its complexity and drama to a William Shakespeare play, which its main character gets his name.
And Dawn ends the same way that it started on Caesar’s eyes, looking out towards a terrible world, where the apes are now forced into an unnecessary war, which he will have to lead. It is this mixture of melancholy and leadership that comes across through Caesar’s gaze that makes the whole enterprise so affective. In the background warships are coming and after the credits there is a pained ape grumbling (could Koba still be alive?). More so than any other fiction film last year, or even any documentaries, Dawn along with Chris Nolan’s Interstellar captures cinema’s imaginary potential of the science-fiction film to put forward humanity’s biggest concerns and its hopefulness.
In anticipation for the third installment, along with re-releases of the whole series and a new book on all of their productions, one of the best new resources is the Blu-ray of Dawn of the Planet of Apes. It’s just packed with special features! There are over two hours of bonus special features, a director audio commentary, and deleted scenes along with other extras. These are great just to see its director Matt Reeves and to hear him talk about his relationship with the franchise, footage of him on set filming, and for his ideas on cinematic storytelling. But it’s also full of great information on the mechanisms of filming these large tent-pole franchises, exciting locations and fascinating sets, and use of technology with performance capture and CGI.
The bonus features, which are between ten to fifteen minutes, include eight featurettes: Journey to Dawn, Andy Serkis: Rediscovering Caesar, Humans and Apes: The Cast of Dawn, The World of Dawn, The Ape Community, Move like an Ape: An Artist’s Medium, Weta and Dawn, and The Fight for a New Dawn. These are like a film school for amateurs.
The star of these special features is its director, one of the best working ones today, Matt Reeves. You get to see him talking about the film all dressed up in a bow tie, big glasses, and slicked back hair. You get to see him on set directing, wearing a big coat on set, a neckerchief, and a huge black leather cowboy hat. In the studio with an un-tucked schleppy white shirt. You hear his soft, curious, and affirmative voice as he’s commenting over the film. It sounds like he just loves talking about the film, the apes, the different stages of the project, the roots of the film, and he acknowledges the importance of all of his collaborators.
Reeves has been a big fan of the Apes series since he was a kid. His introduction to it was the television series and then that brought him back to the movies, and he would quickly go out and buy all of the dolls and toys. He even says that as a boy he desperately wanted to be an ape and to get a John Chambers prosthetic make-up treatment.
He’s a film geek director, like Guillermo del Toro and Gareth Edwards, who puts his love of cinema into the projects that he decides to make, and someone that takes the idea of horror and science fiction films seriously. The audience already knows how the reboots are going to end, that’s where the Charlton Heston film ended, so Dawn will be more about “how” things got there, what went wrong. Through this the film examines human nature and the nature of violence.
Reeves changed the story as initially it started with the humans, but he wanted it to start with Caesar and the Apes. Point of view is really important for him. This makes the Ape Ceremony and the birth of the new son really important.
Reeves is described as “like an old-fashioned theater director,” as he does a lot of rehearsal with his actors. As like it’s brought up, performance capture doesn’t work if the performances aren’t good. Reeves really trust his actors and gives them his full attention. Having worked with Keri Russell on Felicity, a more intimate show compared to his more recent large-scale productions, working again with the actress, he knows to search for the emotional center of each scene. The ones with the actress especially stand out – she’s the heart of the film. Reeves collaboration here with Russell emerged for a failed project between the two on a wartime photographer film.
Reeves is really hands on director. You get to see him working closely with all of his collaborators, while working on the set, with the technology, and on the fight sequences. You can see him explaining to Andy Serkis that he needs to scramble more on a rooftop and see him making silly noises to get Jason to get him to react before he has to repeat a scene alone for over one-hundred takes. Reeves even gives his friend and composer Michael Giacchino, after completing the score, Caesar’s spear from the film as a gift.
Reeves ideas on filmmaking and his discussion of the film is fascinating. On the beginning of the film he describes it like, “Almost like a silent movie.” There are also a lot of Western, Kurosawa and Kubrick references throughout the film. On the introduction between Malcolm and Caesar, Reeves describes the scene like it’s from a classic Western. Reeves, “It can function like an epic western.” The classic mythic forms of the western genre are compared to the work of John Ford, but with a new photo-realism. Gary Oldman’s first scene is described to be right out of The Searchers. Reeves has been a fan of Oldman since Sid and Nancy. While Jason Clark has been admired by Reeves since Brotherhood and Zero Dark Thirty.
Reeves sees the focus on the apes and Caesar’s story as being Shakespearean, Kurosawa-ian, and similar to The Godfather. When Koba invades the castle it is compared to Kurosawa’s Ran. While the scene of Jason going into the camp to see Caesar is compared to Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now.
Reeves brings up Kubrick a lot in terms of human evolution, from the primitive to Darwinism. On its opening where humanity gets destroyed is like the beginning of 2001, which is accentuated in Dawn with the rise of this new breed of intelligent apes. On getting the movement and gestures for the apes Reeves closely looked at the sad documentary Project Nim.
And the ideas behind the production of Avatar are also present during the production, nonetheless because they were even filming some of the performance capture in James Cameron’s studio where a poster of it hangs high.
It’s surprising that Spielberg is only brought up once. The M11 tank war scene, from Blue Eyes perspective, is compared the loss of innocence during a combat like in the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. But there are other scenes that are really Spielbergian too. When Malcolm is going into the rainy forest wearing the classic Indie hat it is pure Jurassic Park. The strong use of warm hues and backlighting recalls the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski. The long-take during a combat of Malcolm returning to the castle to get the backpack recalls Munich. And the whole father and son reconciliation is pure Spielberg! More so then last year’s Godzilla, which seemed to just take Spielberg and copy-and-paste, Reeves organically takes Spielberg’s lessons and makes it think and puts it into practice. (I feel like it being a 20th Century Fox film is one reason Spielberg is not brought up as much). Reeves has discussed his Spielberg influences elsewhere, for example, working on Let Me In with Kodi Smit-McPhee, Reeves had a conversation with Spielberg about working with children actors. And, of course, there is Cloverfield too.
I could probably go on further at length about the sophistication and pleasures of getting the chance to re-watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on home-video and in such high quality image and rich soundtrack. As well these notes just hit the surface of all the great supplementary material on the Blu-ray DVD. It's a must-own film and one of the best DVD releases of 2014.