This past weekend the Alamo Drafthouse and Badass Digest held a special screening of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with a Q&A after featuring Gary Oldman, Andy Serkis and director Matt Reeves. Seeing this incredible film and then hearing the Q&A, one thing became crystal clear: Matt Reeves saved this movie from being like every other sequel.
At several points Reeves mentions his initial contact with the studio and how the movie they presented to him wasn’t exactly the movie he was interested in making. It didn’t focus on the apes in the right ways, and it needed to tone down how much they had advanced since the last film. So the studio let him bring on a new writer to work with (Mark Bomback) and make the movie his way, so long as he could still get it done on time.
But asking for a rewrite isn’t the real reason Matt Reeves saved Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
What really brought this movie away from the brink of being just another sequel is how much reverence Reeves clearly has for not only the old Planet of the Apes series, but what was laid out in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He points out a number of times during the Q&A how much admiration he had for Rise, and how many scenes influenced him, but what’s great about this isn’t that he saw what worked and did it again– which is exactly what you’d expect from a sequel. Rather, Reeves truly thought about and figured out why certain themes and ideas worked, what motivated them, and how those could be played out on a grander scale.
It’s odd that such simple extrapolation — of looking at an idea, understanding why it worked, and then applying those principles to new and different ideas — is rare for Hollywood sequels, but it unfortunately is. Just look at a sampling of big studio sequels from the last decade and you’ll see they pretty much only tackle what the first one did, but with bigger action scenes. Star Trek Into Darkness has Kirk battling with being a Captain again. Transformers 2 is just more bumbling humans as Optimus Prime fights Megatron again. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is Peter Parker still dealing with his daddy issues. Thor: The Dark World threatens to change the game, but then presses the just kidding button and ends up being all about Loki’s continued desire to dethrone daddy. The Hangover 2 is just the first movie in a different city. The list goes on.
That’s not to say that all of those sequels are bad movies (though some are), only they exist to tread water and maintain status quo. There’s no sense of development or forward progress from the first film. The circumstances haven’t changed. Nothing has been truly learned by the characters. And so what saves Dawn of the Planet of the Apes from the fate of all these other sequels is Reeves’ awareness of progress, of understanding how the world of the first film has changed while the audience has been away. There’s a sense of intellectual continuity to it that’s pretty remarkable. The world kept spinning while we weren’t watching, and Reeves simply figures out a good point to jump back in and show us where things are now.
And not only is that how Reeves saves Dawn of the Planet of the Apes from being like most other sequels, it’s how he elevates it to the same level as the recent benchmark for ambitious sequels: The Dark Knight.
Now Bat-fans, before you start throwing Batarangs at me for daring to put another movie on The Dark Knight’s pedestal, I am not arguing one way or another that Dawn is better or worse than Nolan’s film, simply that everything that makes TDK great is present in Dawn. It respects what happens in the first movie, it respects the audience’s intelligence, and with those crucial things under its belt, it is allowed to take risks, to have consequences.
It’s funny how many sequels don’t allow that last part. They’re afraid that if they make any permanent decisions or mess with the formula of the first movie, audiences will be confused and frightened away in droves. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t think that at all. It delights in making decisions. The entire movie is about decisions being made — both by the apes and the dwindling number of humans — and wow is that refreshing. And none of it would have ended up on the big screen were it not for Matt Reeves essentially telling the studio, “What if we…” instead of just going along with the status quo that was presented to him.
Having said all of that, it needs to be stressed that 20th Century Fox’s willingness to engage with Reeves’ ambitious plan is also what saved this movie. The studio folks could have simply said no to his counterpitch, but instead they had a dialogue with him. They selected a leader and they put their trust in him, echoing one of the movie’s biggest themes: a leader is only as strong as the community who enables them. And the result is a rich, complex movie unlike any of the other tentpole films that have hit theaters in years.
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