In many ways, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has it easy. No one was clamoring for a reboot/reimagining/prequel-ish return to the Planet of the Apes franchise when Rise of the Planet of the Apes was released in 2011. Tim Burton had already killed it dead in 2001. The world did not expect or have an inkling of forethought that it would be as visually spectacular, mature or galvanizing as it turned out to be. In a crowded summer blockbuster marketplace, it was easy to overlook. Three years later, the world has a better idea of what to expect. This does, admittedly, put a lot more pressure on the new filmmakers on board for this one (new director Matt Reeves of Cloverfield fame and writer Mark Bomback joining Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver from the first film), but it also guarantees it will receive much more exposure from the viewing public. A double-edged sword, indeed, but it is one that can work greatly in their favor if they can make lightning strike twice.
Fittingly, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens on an extreme close-up of an ape’s face. It should not come as a surprise that the ape in question is Caesar (Andy Serkis providing the motion capture and voice), the hyper-intelligent leader of the rise in the Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Older, wizened and made up in white war paint in the shape of a skull, Caesar has established a colony in the forest outside San Francisco. A wide swath of humanity has been wiped out by the so-called “Simian Flu,” and the apes seem to comfortably have the run of the place without any sort of human intervention. That is until a hunting party happens upon a group of humans in the woods surrounding their compound. Led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the humans are in search of a nearby dam that they are hoping to use to power their refuge camps in the city. Despite Malcolm’s disinterest in conflict, tensions mount quickly thanks to the presence of two emotional powder kegs, the human Carver (Kirk Acevedo) and Koba (Toby Kebbell), one of the apes who was particularly heavily experimented on from Rise of the Planet of the Apes and harbors a distinct distrust of the humans because of it.
It is equally fitting that Caesar has the name he does (given to him by John Lithgow’s character in the first film, as the ape entered his life while he was reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar), as the story of the film has much to thank to the bard in its structure. What sets Dawn of the Planet of the Apes apart is the way the script creates a duality between the two civilizations and uses that as a catalyst for the plot to move forward. Both societies have their leaders with good hearts (Caesar and Malcom), and both have their combustible elements (Koba and Carver, as well as Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, the de facto human leader of the camp). Tensions lead to conflict, often born out of a misguided but understandable prejudicial bent from each side. There are no pure black hats in this film. There may be villains (more than a few), but their intentions are rooted in the desire for the survival of their respective people. It is a brilliant and natural way to escalate the stakes of the plot, and revels in that Shakespearean feel of events spiraling out of the control of its protagonists, forced to start a war neither side really wants.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the visual wizardry that has created these splendid apes so reverently on the silver screen. There is no uncanny valley. There is no straining of credulity. They are characters on the screen like any other, and feel as such without the audience having to work for it. These is, put simply, the best computer generated beings that have ever been seen in the cinema. Better than Avatar, or any of the work done in
Lord of the Rings or Serkis’ other motion capture roles. This is a step above. It is so easy to fall into the rhythms of the film and not think twice about the fact that they are all computer generated apes. Serkis remains at the top of his ever so specific craft, but it would be folly to focus so much on Serkis without giving due praise to the other performers hidden behind computer generated faces and bodies. The film would not work at all without an equal belief in the plight of Koba as that of Caesar, and Toby Kebbell likewise deserves equal praise. Karin Konoval’s portrayal of Maurice, the sure to be fan favorite orangutan carryover from the first film who has cultivated a love for Charles Burns’ seminal graphic novel Black Hole, is loving and full of care. These performances are just as key as the work of Jason Clarke or Gary Oldman or Keri Russell’s actual human roles, and it is fundamentally important that Matt Reeves and his screenwriters treat them with equal respect. Reeves’ camera work is straightforward and direct, and at times prone to greatness (there is a bravura sequence on top of a tank’s cannon mount that is a particular highlight), and his action is clean and easy to follow. All of it is bolstered by Michael Giacchino’s wonderful score. He is a master of the form, and his mix of tribal drums and brassy outbursts perfectly encapsulates the mood of the piece.
The most direct praise that can be given to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that it is a worthy successor to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It is not a retread of the same themes, or a simple cash grab. It is its own film with its own ideas and goals, and a natural extension of the story. The winking references to the original series are gone; there is simply no time for winking these days as humanity is on the brink. It is a darker film, one with war on its mind until there is no other recourse. Effortlessly expanding the universe outward, the film is overstuffed with fine acting and competent storytelling. Its visual wizardry is an arrow in its quiver, the sort of flashy work that could easily consume everything around it were it not for the matter-of-fact way it is employed. The world these filmmakers have created just makes sense, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a very strong intelligent blockbuster in the vein of its predecessor.