“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was this weekend’s pan-species box-office champ, gobbling up $73 million like so many perfectly ripe bananas. The sequel to 2011’s surprisingly effective “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” — itself a reboot of the 1968 classic — earned a respectful A-minus Cinemascore grade with audiences, who seemed to share my high opinion of this latest installment. Skillfully directed by Matt Reeves, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” works both as spectacle (look, that ape is riding a horse! And firing a gun!) and Orwellian allegory, whose advocacy for pluralism, tolerance and anti-extremism is keenly attuned to this era.
As he did in the first installment, actor Andy Serkis invested his character, a gifted and talented chimp named Caesar, with deep reserves of wisdom and watchful sensitivity as he led his community of fellow simians into another fateful encounter with aggressively animalistic humans. Serkis’s sad-eyed performance dovetailed seamlessly with a production that, from its handsome visual design to Michael Giacchino’s mournful score, is suffused with a profound sense of grief and loss.
But I suspect that most people who flocked to “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” over the weekend might have also shared my twinge of ambivalence when it was all over: Rather than turn to one another with goofy, what-a-great-flick glee, they were more likely to shuffle out of the multiplex in a mood of subdued solemnity. Is “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” impressive? Without a doubt. Is it admirably smart and ambitious? You bet. Is it fun? Eh . . . not so much.
“Dawn’s” funereal tone seems to be the norm these days, especially for reboots of legacy franchises that, in their efforts not to succumb to sentimental nostalgia or trivialized camp, succumb to amped-up carnage and inflated self-seriousness instead.
This isn’t true of every reboot: One of the reasons J.J. Abrams’s 2009 version of “Star Trek” worked so well was the filmmaker’s deft touch, not just in casting the perfect younger analogs of Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock and their Enterprise shipmates, but also in playing a little bit within the “Trek” universe, balancing now-mandatory psychological complexity with brightening doses of color and self-aware wit.
But “Star Trek” is an outlier in a genre of films that, whether it’s Superman or James Bond or Godzilla, feel obligated to take their protagonist into ever darker, more violent territory, both exterior and interior. The most classic example is Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of “Batman” films, which in their unrelenting solemnity made Tim Burton’s stylized version, itself considered pretty dark when it came out in 1989, seem downright playful by comparison. Mired in depressive moodiness, entranced with loud, punishing mayhem, Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” was a Grand Guignol of a downer, its emotionalism so overwrought that, in the service of any other character or story, it would have been dismissed as rank melodrama.
There may be some credible reasons for these “Dark Knights” of the cinematic soul. For one thing, they flatter the sensibilities of studios and the executives who greenlight these projects, reassuring them that their core competency — raiding their and others’ archives for valuable “pre-sold” source material — can be one of gravitas and meaning, rather than simple repurposing of pop signifiers. They also entice the classiest Hollywood players — the Nolans, Christian Bales and Paul Haggises of the world — to enterprises that, in less-sophisticated hands, wouldn’t be nearly as smart or adroitly executed.
Super-heavy reboots also address the needs and expectations of their two most crucial audiences: hard-core fans of the originals who demand to be taken seriously and a global audience that was barely acknowledged when those originals came out. Whereas self-referential humor and subtle satire might send the first group into gales of knowing giggles at Comic-Con, they may literally be lost in translation in Beijing or Brasilia (see this year’s amped-up but dumbed-down “RoboCop” reboot for details).
Similarly, giving your hero a haunting, troubled back story is perceived as a surefire way to earn the viewer’s emotional investment over the long haul — and into the video game and other ancillary products. Put it all together, and you’ve got the cinematic equivalent of Esperanto: lugubrious atmosphere, dreary realism and grisly, game-worthy action that can easily transcend any border, dialect or cultural quirk.
There’s no doubt that, like “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” many if not most of the latest reboots have been admirably ambitious and exceptionally well-made — worth noting, in light of how easily they could have been churned out like so much disposable pulp. There’s no question they’ve tapped into the anxieties of their age. But as praiseworthy as they’ve been in pure execution, too many of them have used dour tonal shades and technical prowess to lend their essential shallowness the fig leaf of grim, brooding pseudo-depth. It might have been an intriguing gambit when “Batman Begins” came out in 2005, but by the time “Man of Steel” landed in theaters eight years later, it felt tired and needlessly oppressive.
The solemnicizing of pop entertainment has resulted in a remarkably joyless enterprise — devoid of the simple exhilarations and visceral delights that made Hollywood fantasies such escapist pleasures in the first place (see the fleet, sure-footed and enormously entertaining “Avengers” franchise for details). We may be leaving our multiplexes feeling respectful or gobsmacked or even pondering the deeper ethical implications of man’s inhumanity to monkey. But a nagging question, too often, remains: Why so serious?