If handled badly, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — which arrived in cinemas Friday — might have ended up a claustrophobic endeavor. It’s a sequel to a prequel to the iconic franchise of the late 1960s and early ’70s, which has already produced five movies.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) detailed how the apes get their genetically superior powers, and we’ve known for nearly 50 years what they end up doing with them.
But to Gary Oldman, who plays Dreyfus, leader of the surviving humans, the movie is a fulfilling bait-and-switch, an emotionally gratifying stand-alone tale that still plays to the wider legacy of Planet of the Apes.
“It says Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on the cover, and then when I started to read it, it was almost an intimate film about family and community. … That was surprising to me,” Oldman says at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, looking a little tired after an unwelcome week in the spotlight brought on by his remarks in an interview that offended Jews and others.
After his comments were published, Oldman apologized profusely, appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live to make a public mea culpa (“I’m a public figure. I should be an example and an inspiration, and I’m an a--hole. And I’m 56. I should know better,” Oldman said on the show).
The new world
Today, however, there are less controversial matters to discuss.
To Oldman’s left, Australian Jason Clarke, who plays Malcolm, says of the new Apes film, “I was able to believe the situation through to the end, and I think you see that in the film. It stays true to its world and its rules.”
While viewers already know where the story is heading — “It’s on its way to meet Charlton Heston,” Oldman says — that’s not a bad thing, the actor surmises.
“This isn’t Planet of the Humans,” he says. “But it was Matt’s [Reeves, the movie’s director] feeling that you don’t have to rush to get there, you can take your time answering these questions, about how they got that way, why the ape society was set up like that, how they got to be wearing clothes.”
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up 10 years after the end of Rise. The virus unleashed at the end of the previous movie has wiped out much of humanity. We find a group of survivors bunking down in the destroyed remains of San Francisco, living in peace across the harbor from a society of genetically evolved apes in Muir Woods.
Picking up on the human and ape societies — one in decline, one on the rise, each trying to find a way to move forward — made for a uniquely villain-less story, Oldman says.
For Clarke, the choices each group has to make give the movie an intellectual heart that puts it above most summer fare.
“What kind of worlds are we trying to create?” he asks. “For humans, after our civil war and our apocalypse, are we trying to build something more noble and human? For Caesar [the leader of the apes, played by Andy Serkis], he’s got choices in going ahead, too, raising the first generation of apes born totally free.”
The human/simian aspect of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, with humans playing apes acting alongside humans playing humans, made it a surreal movie to film, the actors agree.
Oldman says that the humans in the ape army showed up for work each day in tight spandex suits with cameras on their foreheads, looking like they had just been skydiving.
Malcolm’s relationship with Caesar is part of the emotional heart of the movie, and Clarke was tasked with figuring out how to build that relationship and convey it to audiences in a convincing fashion with no reference point for how humans and genetically evolved apes might bond.
“We discussed it on set and recognized that there’s no right answer there, which gave us the space to try and figure out organically how that relationship might go,” Clarke says.
Filming Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was an exercise in trust, Oldman says. On a day-in, day-out level, it was a lot like filming any other drama. But at the recent world premiere at the Palace of Fine Arts, they saw that their work was part of a much greater labor. Not only had humans been rendered as apes, but all manner of dramatic camera work and CGI effects had been layered in as well.
“It was surprising,” Oldman says. “Like a sculpture, well worked, with the sound, the CGI, the 3-D. It wasn’t offensive or intrusive. They really trusted the material.”