Last Wednesday evening (April 16), Den of Geek was among the media outlets invited to a special screening of around 20 minutes of footage from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the upcoming sequel to 2011’s surprise hit, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The screening – the first time this footage had been shown anywhere – was hosted by Andy Serkis, who reprises his role as Caesar, the ape whose intelligence was enhanced by a new drug in the first film and who eventually led his people in rebellion against the humans who mistreated them.
As Serkis explained (and as has been documented already), the new film takes place 10 years later. The same drug that transformed Caesar also accidentally created a virus that has wiped out 99 percent of humanity and led to the collapse of human civilization. Caesar has led his people into the forests outside San Francisco, where they’ve created a peaceful, almost bucolic egalitarian society and village. The lights in the Bay Area have slowly gone out over the previous decade, leading the simians to believe that there are no longer humans living there.
Introducing the footage, Serkis said that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes utilized “the greatest amount of performance capture ever seen onscreen” to bring the apes to life, adding that it was doubly challenging because most of the movie was shot in outdoor locations. But he also said that director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) “always sought to find the heart and the drama of the story,” which he added was about “family, tribalism, empathy and prejudice.”
The first scene set up the conflict immediately, showing two apes enjoying some fishing before walking back through the woods, playing and chatting (in subtitles) as they go – and suddenly confronted by a human (Kirk Acevedo). Both sides are surprised and frightened, but it’s the human who pulls out a gun and shoots one of the apes. The sound reaches the ape village and brings Caesar and his people on the run – just as the rest of the humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), arrive as well. There’s a tense standoff until Malcolm persuades his small band to lower their weapons and Caesar holds back his own people, but then sends the humans fleeing by roaring “Go!” at them.
The second clip brought us back to the ape village, where Caesar and a council of advisors discussed the appearance of the humans and its ramifications. This scene showed the brilliant way in which the evolution of the apes’ language is being handled in the film, as Caesar, his trusted friend Koba (Toby Kebbell) and others communicate through a combination of grunts, sign language and a few words of English, most of which come from Caesar. His priority, he says, is “home, family, future,” and he’s hesitant to attack the humans – but as he tells Koba privately after the meeting, the apes will show their strength as well.
Scene three introduced us to where the humans are living – and we use the term loosely. Unlike the apes, who are thriving, the remnants of humankind are struggling in some sort of fortified building (it looks like it could be a former armory or something like that) with no power, scarce supplies of food and almost none of the resources that humans need to prosper. We also meet their leader, Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman), who harbors a deep resentment for the apes, and other humans who blame the simians for the virus even though it was created in a human lab, as Malcolm’s wife Ellie (Keri Russell) points out.
But the humans face an even greater threat as Caesar and hundreds – if not thousands – of apes show up at their enclosure, some on horseback and carrying primitive weapons. As a sign of possible peace, however, the apes return a bag dropped by Malcolm’s son, and it’s Malcolm who steps out to retrieve it and face Caesar directly. The ape leader’s message? “Apes don’t want war but will fight if we must,” adding that the city is the human home and the forest is the apes’ home. His advice: “Don’t come back.”
In scene four, we’ve been told by Andy Serkis that Caesar has agreed to help the humans with a project to restore a hydro-electric power station to operational mode. While Keri Russell’s Ellie is treating an injured human — Carver, the same one from the opening scene – Caesar’s infant son scrambles over and climbs playfully around Ellie and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It’s a sweet moment that shows perhaps one possible future for the two races, although Carver expresses his doubts.
The fifth and final scene carried the same theme. The massive orangutan Maurice (played by Karin Konoval) visits the humans’ campsite in the woods, where he bonds with Malcolm’s son, who gives him a book (it looked like Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole from where we were sitting). As the boy reads to the ape, Malcolm and Ellie wake up and watch quietly, perhaps hopeful that there is an optimistic future ahead for all.
Since we know, however, that the new movies will eventually lead to the world of the original Planet of the Apes, that’s not likely to happen. And after being shown the current trailer for the film, Serkis introduced one final clip: an ape walking playfully up to two humans, taking a drink or two from their bottle of whiskey and horsing around with them to gain their trust, until he seizes one of their machine guns and blows one of the men away in cold blood.
Some final thoughts: the complexity, characterizations, world-building and tension in each of the scenes we saw made it clear that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes might be one of the most thought-provoking and emotionally resonant blockbusters of this summer, not to mention possibly one of the best of the Apes franchise itself. While some of the effects were not finished, the ones that were displayed the incredible progress made with the apes themselves in just the three years since the first film came out. As a lifelong Apes and sci-fi fan, this is clearly one of my most anticipated films of the summer.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes arrives in theaters July 11.