Dawn of the Planet of the Apes brings meaning to the action
‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ takes the bar set by its predecessor and raises it impossibly high with a great script, great effects and great performances.
If you didn’t see 2011’s terrific reboot of the classic Planet of the Apes franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it’s not necessarily required viewing to enjoy or follow the story of the sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The new film takes place ten years after the events of the first movie — and the opening title sequence helpfully fills in the details of the simian flu which has decimated humankind — and now finds the band of intelligent apes (created by the same virus that killed the humans) living peacefully in San Francisco’s Muir Woods. It’s been at least two winters since they’ve last seen a human, so they assume everyone is now gone.
But, of course, they’re wrong when they discover a small band of humans traipsing through their property, one of them with an itchy trigger finger, unaware that the apes are nearby. A shooting incident immediately brings distrust of the humans but the ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis), with memories of his warm upbringing with humans, is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. The humans need to reach the dam which is just past the apes enclave in order to restore power to their base in San Francisco. Without it, their dwindling supply of fuel will run out, plunging the humans back into chaos. Caesar’s friend and right hand, Koba (Toby Kebbell), is not as trusting of the humans — for good reason — and does what he can to prove the humans cannot be trusted.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of those rare sequels that matches or bests its predecessor. It’s also a summer blockbuster that’s willing to do more than just blow things up instead of giving us a story or characters to care about (although it was a bit dismaying to hear someone at my screening say Transformers 4 was a better movie). Dawn begins slowly, maybe a bit too slowly for some, but the film gives us time to know the characters. We know Caesar, we know Koba, we know Caesar’s son Blue Eyes, the orangutan Maurice, and the others in the group. The film truly makes them human by giving them all the same flaws and virtues that we have. We see the deep bond between Caesar and Koba, and we understand both of them because of the excellent script and amazing performances from Serkis and Kebbell. And when a betrayal comes, it hurts us as well as the characters.
The humans don’t fare as well, coming off a bit cliché or cardboard. Jason Clarke is fine as Malcolm, the human who becomes an unwitting emissary between apes and humans. He has a good heart and Caesar can see that so they build a bond that Koba resents. Keri Russell is just there, but her character has a pivotal moment that also helps build the bond between the apes and humans. Kirk Acevedo is Carver, the untrusting human who nearly destroys what Malcolm has built, and Gary Oldman is just under-used as the humans’ leader who would rather shoot at the apes than reason with them. Most of the humans don’t realize that the apes can speak, and when they do, that only magnifies the fear in the humans.
Even though Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a summertime, sci-fi action film at its core, the story (like most great science fiction) firmly casts is gaze on modern society and its ills. The major issue that the film spotlights is just our natural tendency to distrust anyone who isn’t like us. The other issue that seems to be important to the filmmakers is the gun issue. Caesar will not let the humans into his world with guns. When it’s discovered Carver has a hidden gun, Caesar nearly ends their agreement but Malcolm sends Carver away to keep the peace. But that one act, that one gun, has a terrible resonance that drives the remainder of the movie.
Director Matt Reeves brilliantly works his slow build to really immerse the audience into this totally believable world, so it’s all the more emotionally involving when the rug is pulled from under our feet and the apes go to war with the humans (possibly under totally false pretenses … imagine that). But for all the brilliance of the script and direction, the film succeeds wholly on the backs of the actors and special effects technicians who bring the apes to life. The first film was a marvel of motion capture performance and CGI effects, but there was still an occasional tell that something was an effect. The new film renders the apes as close to realistic as you can get with amazing detail and texture to the faces, eyes and hair. You really believe you’re watching real animals performing. And, seriously, Oscar people, you must consider Andy Serkis for a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Just because you can’t see him on screen doesn’t mean he didn’t imbue that character with all the human emotion any other actor brings to their characters.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that rare summer action movie that will actually make you think. When I came out of the screening, I felt that I enjoyed the first movie more but I have certain thought about the themes and meaning of this movie much longer which ultimately, in my book, makes this the much better film in the long run.