Sometimes franchise movies don’t feel like franchise movies and that’s a good thing. Even though Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is technically the eighth film to bear the …Planet of the Apes name, it’s almost a completely new and different take on the entire idea of a world with hyper-intelligent apes. While certainly a sequel in character and circumstance to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it tackles ideas and themes that were hinted at in earlier movies but never explicitly shown. If Rise was a retooling of the ideas present in 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, then I suppose Dawn would fall into the camp of being 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, except of course that Battle was by far the worst film of the original five, and Dawn is in every way a step up from the already-impressive Rise.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t spend a lot of time holding your hand getting you up to speed as far as where we are and who everybody is when we start. Either you saw Rise or you didn’t, and largely it doesn’t matter too much as long as you’re aware that apes are intelligent and humans have been wiped out by a man-made virus. From there, like all good sci-fi allegories, we can focus on the well-trod idea that there are two opposing factions on this overgrown and gutted world and they can either find a way to co-exist, or they can destroy each other. What I love the very most about the movie, before getting into specifics, is the way it portrays each side as being destructive through fear and not through being evil. Humans aren’t the enemy and apes aren’t the enemy; it’s individuals from both sides that are to blame for the violence that escalates. And, boy howdy, does it ever escalate.
We begin deep in the San Francisco Park forest with hundreds of apes all living in relative peace under the watchful eye of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the hero of the last film. It’s been long enough since that film for Caesar to have a son the relative age of a teenager. His mate, Cornelia (the sadly underused Judy Greer), is giving birth to their second son, and all seems right with the Planet they’ve created. However, the humans who live just over the bridge are coming in to the forest. While out with friends, Caesar’s son Blue Eyes is met by a human named Carver (Kirk Acevedo) who is scared enough to pull a gun and shoot the friend, Ash. Other humans hurry to his aid, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his “mate” (Keri Russell), and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The apes too arrive on the scene and chase the humans away with a mighty bellow of “GO!” which startles the humans greatly.
Caesar has an ultimatum for the humans later – the apes will stay in their home if the humans remain in theirs. Unfortunately, the humans, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), need to go into the forest to get a hydroelectric dam working to get light back to the city. They’re almost out. While Dreyfus thinks a war is the only answer, Malcolm believes he can convince Caesar to let them get the plant operational again and leave. Caesar’s inherent trust of humans is at direct odds with the feelings of his second in command, Koba (Toby Kebbell), who was one of the apes badly mistreated by scientists in the last film. Either an uneasy truce will be forged or the bubbling idea of war will overflow. From the fact that this is also an action movie, you can pretty much guess which ideal wins out.
Director Matt Reeves instills a lot of tension into the film which is exactly what is needed for the post-apocalyptic Cold War on display. You feel at any moment the war could break out and then when it does it feels like any moment could spell disaster for both sides. It’s a hard thing to achieve for a movie with talking apes in it. It feels very much like a grown-up, proper sci-fi movie, not unlike the original Planet of the Apes in 1968. There’s terrific spectacle and apes will always be enjoyable to see, but there’s some very troubling and real-world implications to the story at play.
There are moments of truly impressive visual filmmaking. One moment in particular involves a tank being driven through San Francisco after the apes’ attack begins. The camera is affixed just behind the gunner and as the action unfolds and apes come to take the tank, the camera continues uninterrupted like we’re watching some kind of war footage recorded for the Discovery Channel. It’s an absolutely stunning shot. Other sequences worth mentioning are the opening elk hunt, the march on the human city, and the fight on the tower at the end. It will all make sense when you see it, but Reeves’s direction is absolutely breathtaking.
Once again, as in Rise, the apes are where the movie’s heart lies, and most of that is due to unfathomably brilliant central performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar. Though I’m certainly not the first person to say this, Serkis deserves multiple Oscars for the work he’s done conveying so much depth, pathos, and compassion into a digitally-realized character. He’s joined by Toby Kebbell who gives an equally impressive and rather terrifying performance as Koba, the angry would-be usurper to Caesar’s throne.
What I think is really brilliant about these apes is that only a few of them have the capacity to speak verbally, but they all understand English and can all communicate via sign language, which is the bulk of the dialogue in the film. They aren’t just chatting willynilly, nor when they are speaking aloud does it seem particularly easy for them. They aren’t Roddy McDowell or Kim Hunter speaking perfect accented Englishl; the apes still only have the noise-producing faculties present in non-enhanced simians and so they truly do speak through the grunts and howls they were born with.
If there’s one downside to the movie it’s, as in Rise, the human characters. While they’re certainly more interesting and less caricatured than they were in the earlier film, there’s still not a whole lot there for people to attach themselves to. Malcolm’s family is meant to parallel Caesar’s and bring the two fathers closer together, which it does, but there’s not much else for those family members to do. Oldman is wonderful as always, but even he gets overlooked to a large degree by the end when he becomes fanatical to a degree that seems out of character. Still, the movie is about the Apes and if the humans don’t get in the way of that, then it’s not really a bad thing. Just a bit more development might have been nice.
Overall, though, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is another worthy entry into one of my favorite film series of all time, and another tick in the box of my belief that this is the Summer of Science Fiction. It didn’t set my brain alight, but it is totally engaging, terrifically exciting, and thoroughly satisfying.