20th Century Fox played it smart with RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. They kept the budget low (well, lowish – the movie cost just under $100 million) and unlike the Burton remake, this one didn’t feel like a sequel was bound to happen. Sure, we all knew that Fox wanted this to be a long running franchise again, but if RISE had underperformed at the box office, the film could stand as a one and done without too many complaints. Caesar and his gang were in the Redwood National Park and the virus that would wipe out humanity was spreading – we all know what will happen (if you don’t, here’s a hint – what will happen is in the title of the movie) so worse came to worse, fans of the film could happily buy the Blu Ray and not get pissed about an ending that is promising more (we’re all looking at you, FANTASTIC FOUR).
Lucky for us apeheads (I think I just made that up), RISE was a box office hit, ending its theatrical run with a worldwide cume of just a smidge over $480 million. Actor Andy Serkis was the first person connected to RISE to clue people in on the possible sequel, saying in November of 2011 that he had signed on for one. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who had written RISE, were brought in to continue the journey of Caesar, but Fox was still holding off on greenlighting the film. When the studio finally committed to the project in the summer of 2012 (a year after RISE had hit theaters), the release date was set for May 2014 and the title, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, was revealed.
Rupert Wyatt, who so wonderfully handled RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, balked – he felt that, in order to make a sequel worthy of the first film, he would need more than the two years Fox was willing to give. By September, 2012, word was leaking that Wyatt was off the project. On October 1, Fox announced the new director, Matt Reeves.
Matt Reeves had been working in films for near a decade when he was announced as director of the second film in the new APES series, but his name had only become known for most film lovers in 2008 when he directed the found footage sci-fi monster movie CLOVERFIELD. Reeves followed that up by doing something many considered foolish – he wrote and directed LET ME IN, an American remake of the Swedish vampire film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN was considered a modern horror classic, and when the remake was first announced with Reeves connected, horror fans did what horror fans do best – they expected the worst. Fears that Reeves would make his version found footage spread, and when it was clear that LET ME IN wasn’t found footage, fears that it would suck for other reasons set in. As it turned out, while LET ME IN isn’t as great as LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, Reeves made a more than solid film. While the box office for LET ME IN was surely less than everyone involved was hoping for, it was one of the ten best reviewed movies for 2010 (according to Rotten Tomatoes).
Fans of the RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES felt good about Reeves taking over as director. Soon after Reeves came on, James Franco revealed that he wouldn’t be returning for the sequel – this was the first sign that Reeves was taking the series in a direction than Rupert Wyatt – Franco had been in talks to be in the film, but all talks ended when Reeves came on. Later on, producer Dylan Clark would make it clear why Franco and actress Freida Pinto wouldn’t be back – their characters were dead, killed off by the virus before the start of DAWN. In early 2013, Fox announced Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, and Kodi Smit-McPhee would be joining DAWN as three of the main human characters. Terry Notary returned to play Rocket for the second time, as well as train the new ape actors, including Judy Greer as Cornelia.
The movie, set a decade after the events of RISE, was unlike any summer blockbuster audiences had seen before. The opening of the film takes a massive risk, starting us off with the apes who, aside from Caesar, still can’t speak. For a good ten minutes, audiences watch as the apes speak in sign language with subtitles used to fill us in. While RISE also had scenes that depended on the audience paying attention to subtitles (and giving rise to the “Why cookie Rocket” meme) it was done after the film had won the people over, not at the start. To open your big budget summer film like this was a ballsy move for all involved, and Fox execs deserve some credit for taking that chance.
DAWN also follows up on the promise set up with RISE that, unlike many of the summer releases that surround them, these films would be smart. Focusing even more on the story of Caesar, DAWN is a wonderful, emotionally resonant film that once again shows off not only the amazing FX work of Weta Digital, but the acting skills of Andy Serkis. Serkis plays Caesar with a weight that only a leader can carry, and Reeves allows the movie to dwell on those moments. Unlike RISE, where we saw the apes quickly fall in line with Caesar, in DAWN we see the frays in the ape society, with some of the members questioning Caesar’s attitude towards the humans.
Where RISE was arguably a remake of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, DAWN is arguably a remake of BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (and like the final two films of the original APES series, these ones also have titles that could easily be mixed up). DAWN reveals a world where the Simian Flu has ravaged mankind while the apes in the Redwoods have grown more intelligent. Caesar is happy to leave the humans alone so long as they don’t encroach on the woods but, humans being humans, that isn’t going to work out. Gary Oldman gets to take on the role of the human leader Dreyfus, who is doing his best to keep his own society running. When Koba, a real jerk of a chimp, frames the humans for an attack on the ape village where Caesar is shot and seemingly killed, the apes decide to attack the humans. The few apes who refuse to take part in Koba’s attack on the human village are locked up with the captured humans.
Caesar, being full on awesome, returns and takes down Koba, but the damage has been done – the apes and humans will never be able to work together and, knowing this, Caesar and his army return to the Redwoods to prepare for the eventual WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (in theaters this week! Unless you’re reading this in the future, in that case on Blu Ray and available for streaming now!).
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES hit theaters two months later than Fox originally planned, but the delay was worth it; not only did DAWN receive better reviews than the very well reviewed RISE, it was an even bigger hit, bringing in $710 million worldwide. Reeves was signed on for the third chapter of the new APES series before DAWN was released, showing that Fox had great confidence not only in the director, but in DAWN’s box office chances.
Upon release, fans once again started campaigns to get Andy Serkis a very much deserved Oscar nomination. While Matt Reeves, Gary Oldman, and Keri Russell all spoke up for their co-worker, this time Fox chose not to push for Serkis. It’s hard to blame them – the Academy still looks down on motion capture as most voters aren’t clear on where the work of the actor ends and the work of the animators begins. Like RISE, DAWN was nominated for Best Visual Effects, but lost to INTERSTELLAR which, like RISE losing out to HUGO, seems insane to me.
With WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES coming out this week, the new APES series doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon. As I write this, the movie has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and unless SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING pulls an upset, it looks like WAR will come in at #1 for the weekend. Sadly, Matt Reeves will likely not be back for a third go at the series as he heads off to take over directing duties from Ben Affleck for DC’s untitled Batman film.
While a fourth film is in the early stages, Fox is playing it smart again with WAR serving as an end to a trilogy while leaving room for more stories set in the world. Whether or not those stories will include Caesar, we’ll have to see (this isn’t a spoiler – I know nothing about what happens in WAR). Whatever happens, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Rupert Wyatt, Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis have pulled off an almost impossible feat in creating a new APES series that lives up to the original series in the eyes of many, if not most, apeheads.