“Minor quibbles aside, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an absolutely thrilling, entertaining, and affecting entry into the summer movie season.”
by Jason Howard
Behold of The Beginning of My Review of The Dawn of The Planet of The Apes.
After the human population is seemingly wiped out by the very virus that began the ape revolution years ago, Caesar and his genetically evolved colony of apes believe that they have seen the last of the race that used to enslave them. When a small band of human survivors is discovered, however, tranquility is no more as a few misunderstandings lead to an all-out war between man and primate.
2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes turned out to be quite the pleasant surprise. It was a reboot that nobody was asking for (the original five films still hold up remarkably and the less said about 2001’s Tim Burton disaster, the better), but because of the large amount of success that it achieved, a sequel was as inevitable as a monkey doing whatever it is that a monkey does naturally when not genetically altered.
One of the big talking points about this new film is certainly going to be the motion-capture/CGI technique used to bring the apes to life. In the prior go-round, Andy Serkis’ Caesar proved to be quite the impressive marvel as we bought into his reality ALMOST every step of the way. In this film, however, the stakes have been raised exponentially as the majority of the runtime finds the screen filled with a multitude of apes (sometimes hundreds), each with their own personalities and physical developments. You’ll be rather amazed at how well the filmmakers have integrated the artificial with the reality here and the majority of the work is absolutely seamless. The effects work is fantastic.
The whole thing, however, would be a huge letdown if all we had were visuals, pretty as they may be, to look at. Instead, we’re given quite a bit in the story and character development departments to chew on. Sure, the bones of the plot follow a very oft-told parable about war vs. peace and the selfish actions that can lead one into the other, but we see it so often because it’s an effective one. Make no mistake – despite the familiarity, the writers have worked in quite a bit of cleverness to give it their own spin.
One of the most powerful approaches taken here is in the parallel between Caesar, leader of the apes, and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the de-facto leader of the humans. Both are torn between their own kind nature and their responsibility for the preservation of their own species. Both have young sons who want to blindly follow their fathers into whatever endeavors lie ahead while still recognizing the folly within. Both face opposition from one of their own kind with an irrational fear and hatred for the other species. It’s these correlations that pull the most weight when, as a viewer, you move into the natural position of choosing your own alliance as things come to a head. That the humans are not the obvious choice, speaks volumes to the type of balance they are able to strike.
Along those lines, Dawn and the rest of the current series of Ape films, faces the uphill battle of a forgone conclusion that will be familiar to anyone who has watched the original series. If they stray too far from the direction that we all know it’s headed, they face the wrath of the fans. Fortunately, the structure of those first five films (along with the time travel aspect that has not, and most assuredly will not be introduced into this series) allowed a multitude of options for an entry point. Whereas Rise started somewhere near the end of the 3rd film (Escape from the Planet of the Apes) and then encompassed much of the 4th (Conquest of…), Dawn picks up with the 5th (Battle of…) and swings us back around to where we started with the original film. None of these are straight remakes – not even close – but rather just correlations with the films’ trajectories.
Another strength on display is an, at times, almost unbearable amount of tension. Director Matt Reeves does an excellent job of providing multiple set-pieces that culminate in moments that can be quite gripping (and, in a couple of instances, even a bit terrifying). A mid-film battle scene between man and ape ends with ape-antagonist Koba riding a tank that stands among the absolute best wordless scenes we’ve seen in a cinema this year. And, each time one of the apes roars, your own ape hairs on the back of your 98% ape neck will be sure to stand.
Of course, the tension would never get below the absolute surface if we had to spend any significant amount of time doubting the reality of the apes. As previously mentioned, Serkis is nothing short of magnificent as Caesar. The combination of his performance and the motion-capture work done by the technical team is truly something to behold. He plays an ape that, in an odd way, is struggling with his own humanity when confronted with the real thing, and it’s truly a beautiful performance. He’s given a few nice subtle details that you may or may not notice – I especially liked how, at one particular point, as the apes are entering an underground railway station, Caesar is the only one who uses the turnstile as opposed to doing the natural monkey thing of climbing over. I have to believe that it was intentional, even if it’s not pointed out in the film. Motion-capture newbie Toby Kebbell holds his own as Koba, balancing his antagonistic nature with a bit of sympathy in his opposition. You know that many of his decisions are the wrong ones, but you can almost understand why he feels the need to make them. The rest of the apes are just about equally compelling and a few cleverly placed scars and imperfections are used to help us visually distinguish them (despite what your grandma says, not all apes look alike).
Unfortunately, the humans don’t fare quite as well, through no fault of the actors themselves. Jason Clarke is an improvement over the first film’s James Franco as the good guy who bonds with the apes and shares a couple of touching scenes with Serkis, but the rest of the cast is largely wasted. The biggest disappointment definitely lies with Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus. Oldman is as great as ever, but his character is wildly underwritten (despite the impression you may get from the previews). He’s given a nice, emotional scene that portrays much of his backstory without his having to utter a single word, but it’s just a tease at what we know he’s capable of. Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and especially Kirk Acevedo are all here as not much more than plot devices whose motivations aren’t nearly as strong as each of their ape counterpoints, but they still do a fine job with the material they are given.
There are a couple of other minor nitpicks I could certainly make. The film opens with virtually the same montage that we see at the beginning of any film involving end-of-the-world type shenanigans. It helps that they are able to manipulate a few actual press conference clips to appear to be talking about the events of the film, but I’d still like someone to find a way to approach this with a more creative touch. Fortunately, it’s followed by an absolute slam-bang hunting sequence involving the apes, some unfortunate deer, and a rather large bear. The film also falls into a bit of the common problems associated with middle entries of a movie series – the consequences don’t seem as dire when you know that you’re not going to reach the final conclusion within this particular runtime.
JASON’S FINAL THOUGHTS:
Minor quibbles aside, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an absolutely thrilling, entertaining, and affecting entry into the summer movie season. It’s also one of the rare sequels that improves upon an already great predecessor in every way imaginable – it picks up the threads of the first film, but takes them in its own direction entirely. It’s also good enough to please those (myself included) who are fanatics of the original series (not an easy task when approaching remakes/reboots of greatly-loved films) and even gives us a few fun nods of familiarity (including a take on the familiar “Ape must not kill ape” mantra from Battle). I haven’t even gotten into the messages that the film makes towards our political state and society as a whole, along with the essence of where evil is bred from unexpected places, but those are the type of things that should be left to the pleasant surprise of those who just wanna watch a bunch of monkeys blow shit up…