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Monkey Business

The ‘Apes’ franchise goes unintentionally comical

Jul 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 43 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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If you really want to know what a bunch of simians—whose IQs have been boosted by drugs to the human level (or higher, maybe even to the Kardashian level)—would do with themselves if that same drug wiped out all of humanity, then you really have to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It’s quite an achievement. For its first 15 minutes, Dawn is history’s first nature documentary about animals that don’t actually exist in an environment that doesn’t actually exist. It’s a CGI motion-capture documentary re-creation of a false reality!

Caesar: 'Ape Home.'

Caesar: 'Ape Home.'

The apes have gathered in a redwood forest outside San Francisco and have built a lovely little apartment complex out of trees and caves. Here they live in harmony with each other and with nature, communicating in sign language—even though they can actually speak. But why would they want to, when all one of them needs to do is point to his ear to generate a subtitle like, “You seem distraught, Blue Eyes. What’s the matter?” Boy, are they good at sign language.

At the top of the Apartment Complex of the Apes, reachable by a circular upward walkway that looks like Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for the Guggenheim Museum mixed with his weird earthen adobe architecture at Taliesin West, is a dramatic penthouse. This is where Caesar—the ape who, as a baby, was given the IQ-boosting drug by James Franco in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and who then grew up to be Che Guevara of the apes—lives, along with his moaning pregnant wife Cornelia and their angst-ridden teenage son. Caesar is played by Andy Serkis, who is making a career out of miming animals and mythological creatures (like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies) while his actual face and body are transmuted into highly realistic cartoons. He’s really great at it. It’s a living.

All is well for Caesar and the apes, and then some humans show up. It’s been 10 years since the destruction of humanity, but it turns out there’s a tiny community of people living in the ruins of San Francisco. They’re running out of gas, and they want to restart a hydroelectric power system at a nearby dam. After encountering the apes, they run away. Caesar and the other apes jump on horseback and ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to inform the humans to keep their distance. Caesar, who we learned in the first film is a biologically enhanced genius, then speaks: “Human. Home,” he says, pointing to San Francisco; “Ape. Home,” he says, pointing to the suburbs. Which raises the question: If he’s so smart, why can’t he speak in complete sentences? 

A big baboon whose job it is to teach the children writes on a blackboard: “Ape Not Kill Ape.” Seriously? As I say, they’re all very smart. I don’t know why they have to sound like Tarzan. Maybe it’s time for Education Reform of the Apes.

The big question in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is Rodney King’s: Can’t we all just get along? The answer is: Sure they could, but the movie needs some drama and fighting—not to mention that it has to develop its plot in this “reboot” of the series of films from the 1960s and ’70s to the point where apes enslave humans and Charlton Heston shows up in a spaceship. So it’s to be war. One very angry ape named Koba, who was subjected to experimentation in a lab in the first movie, wants to kill all the humans. To do that, he needs to violate the First Ape Commandment and be Ape Who Kills Other Ape.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is beautifully photographed and scored (by the great movie and TV composer Michael Giacchino, who wrote the indelible music for Pixar’s Up and for the Lost series). It’s very somber and very serious, an exploration of the roots of violence and the difficulty of evolving beyond old ideas.

Sure. But God help me, after about five minutes of it, I was distracted by the thought of the innovative 1950s TV comedian Ernie Kovacs. On his seminal variety show, Kovacs featured a group he called the Nairobi Trio: a pianist, a drummer, and a conductor. They moved around as though they were wind-up toys. They all wore long dark coats and bowler hats. The conductor had a cigar in his mouth and kept time, to a rather dainty and bouncy song called “Soleggio,” with a banana. Because they were all apes. Kovacs was the ape with the cigar and, according to legend, at one time or another, Frank Sinatra and Jack Lemmon sat in at the piano.

Director Matt Reeves and screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver ratchet up the moral dilemmas and attempt to turn Caesar into a Shakespearean ape. They really try to make this a decent, thought-provoking film. But I kept thinking about Caesar with the cigar in his mouth, conducting Koba and Blue Eyes with a banana. So if you’re like me, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is unquestionably the comedy highlight of the summer—even though that’s the last thing it wants to be.

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