Empire's Dan Jolin was lucky enough to be among a small, select audience shown roughly 20 minutes of work-in-progress footage of Matt Reeves’ Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes at the 20th Century Lot in Century City, LA, and Caesar himself was there to introduce it. “You are the very, very first peple on the planet to see this footage,” Andy Serkis confirmed, before talking us through six clips.
During his introduction, Serkis spoke of the film being a “hugely ambitious project,” featuring “the greatest amount of performance capture ever in a film.” Indeed, he revealed that Reeves and his crew were still “working around the clock,” and he himself was still being called back in to do pick-ups at the production’s volume in Marina del Rey. Yet the footage shown left us in no doubt that all the effort’s paying off.
The overwhelming sense given was of Dawn being a movie shot, despite its largely performance-captured nature, almost entirely on location. And in majestic exteriors, too: gloomy, misty redwood forests which leave its human players (Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Kodi Smit-McPhee) battered and covered in grime.
Clip one presented ‘First Contact’ between apes and humans in this post-pandemic world, around a decade after the events of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. The humans are rag-tag and barely surviving; the apes a coherent, dominant unit forming a new civilization in their own, as Serkis describes it, “garden of Eden”. Serkis’ Caesar — troubled, uncertain, flecked with grey hairs — appears alongside his lieutenants orang-utan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and chimps Rocket (Terry Notary) and Koba (Toby Kebbell), and also his ‘teenage’ son River (Nick Thurston). There is no doubt at this stage, out in the wilderness of San Francisco’s Muir Woods (actually shot in Vancouver), who has the upper hand. The humans are sent packing.
Next we saw part of what Serkis called the “Apes Council scene” where the primates debate how to respond to this incursion by humans, who they’d long assumed were extinct. “They apes do speak,” Serkis confirmed beforehand, and described how they settled on a carefully achieved balance of ape vocalisations, sign language, ape gestures and a “prototype language” for presenting ape conversation. This mix is strange, but effective, while both the ape-actor performances and Weta’s digital prosthetics prove immensely impressive; even in this single short clip, the power of these characters’ empathetic pull could be felt. Toby Kebbel’s Koba — the scarred chimp tortured at the lab in the first film — promises to be a stand-out. “Koba and Caesar are like brothers,” Serkis commented.
Clip three showed more of the human side and introduced Gary Oldman’s character, hawkish leader Dreyfus, as Caesar arrives on horseback at the human’s San Francisco base with his ‘army’: a show of strength to warn these homo sapiens never again to enter his own peoples’ territory. “Apes do not want war,” Caesar says in clear English to the astonished and terrified humans, “but will fight if we must.” Oldman’s Dreyfus is, as you’d imagine, appalled. “He’s not just the villain of the piece,” Serkis told us, “but a man who’s struggling to keep his people together.” This is not a film about good and evil, but relatable agendas clashing.
The next two clips both suggest that there is a possibility for peaceful co-existence for these two species, Serkis said. One presented “a touching moment” as Serkis put it, between Russell’s Ellie and Caesar’s youngest son, a cute infant chimp, on a muddy shore in Muir Woods. The other saw Kodi Smit-McPhee sharing his book with placid organ-utan Maurice as cold rain pats down on them. Weta’s presentation of the moisture and matting on the ape’s fur somehow takes ‘photo-real’ to a whole new level. The advances in capturing the ape actor’s facial performances, too, are evident. “Weta have moved on extraordinarily,” said Serkis. “They are by far the world leading experts in facial capture.”
The final clip was presented as a bonus scene, an “Easter egg” for us. It focused on Kebbel’s Koba, interracting in a superb little vignette with a pair of humans (one of whom is played by Kevin Rankin, aka Breaking Bad’s Kenny). To describe it, though, feels like we’ll spoil a small surprise. We’ll just say that Koba is a chimpanzee who should not be underestimated… Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is out in the UK on July 17.