Directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield and Let Me In), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes 20th Century Fox’s reboot of the original series to an intelligent and ambitious new level. Rupert Wyatt’s unexpectedly excellent 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes introduced audiences to the miraculous Caesar (an extraordinarily emotional motion-capture performance from Andy Serkis), delved into themes of nurture versus nature and became a largely-silent prison uprising and coordinated revolution full of exciting action set pieces and one of the most shocking revelations in the last few years of cinema.
The much darker Dawn feels completely different, the now post-apocalyptic San Francisco setting playing a role in this. It is an intimate, complex character-driven sci-fi/war hybrid that offers a relentless barrage of intense, unpredictable and deeply affecting moments of moral conflict, and an astounding fusion of visual effects and choreographed battle sequences. Incredibly, the epic Dawn improves upon Rise in almost every capacity, offering thought-provoking commentary on humanity and the differences that may bring opponents to war – despite the mutual desire for peace – amidst unfathomably consistent tension and aesthetic spectacle.
A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar, and including his son River (Nick Thurston), Orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), and the physically and emotionally scarred Koba (Toby Kebbell), is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. Having set up a civilization near the San Francisco Bridge, a small group led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) journey to the woods Caesar calls home and attempt to repair a generator at a hydro-dam to replenish electricity to the city. The clan’s initial wariness of the human invaders turns to fear and contempt following an ape casualty from a self-defense shooting. Even though they reach a fragile peace, and Caesar and Malcolm earn each other’s respect, it proves short-lived as both sides are brought to the brink of a war as a result of desperation and mutiny.
The humans view the apes as a threat because they understand that they can survive and flourish without electricity, which human beings have come to rely on and are so desperate to replenish. What makes the humans a threat however is their reliance on weaponry. When the humans approach the ape camp with guns drawn, Caesar allows them to stay but orders that they leave their guns behind. In a telling indictment of America’s gun laws, the conflict is eventually brought to the heart of their sanctuary via an unchecked gun.
If there is one reason to watch this franchise reboot from the beginning it is for Caesar. What a compelling screen presence, and easily the most impressive feat of motion capture effects to date. But, considering the events that shaped who he is and the life he has built not only for himself, but the other apes that have trusted his leadership, he assumes responsibility. We see that he has matured into a father and watching him make considerations on whether to trust Malcolm, or reprimand Koba for his insubordinate challenging, reveals such a complex intelligence. When Caesar learns that there is another good man left in the world, his ability to connect with the humans isn’t embraced by Koba, whose fierce hatred of man and desire to retaliate can barely be tamed by Caesar.
While the detail in constructing the personalities of the apes is remarkable, the human characters aren’t as shortchanged as in Rise. Clark is very well cast, creating a supportable human hero who becomes torn between a duty to his people and a burgeoning respect for Caesar and his family. He understands that they simply want to be left in peace, and despite what ensues being too big for him to contain his allegiance to Caesar never falters. Keri Russell, who plays Malcolm’s nurse girlfriend, and Kodi Smit-Mcphee, who plays his quiet, artistic son, don’t have a lot to do, but are adequate support to Malcom’s quest for peace. My only real gripe with the film comes through Kirk Acevedo’s arrogant trigger-happy antagonist. It is well-cast role, but his impact on the story is disappointingly obvious and unnecessary.
As Reeves as shown in his two prior films, the remarkable technical feat that is Cloverfield, and the handy re-adaptation of Swedish bestseller Let the Right One In, he is a very confident director and he certainly knows how to immerse his audience through a long take. There are several impressively photographed sequences that are exploding with intense activity, and yet we are given the opportunity to follow one character and take it all in.
Even though Caesar believes he has built a civilization that shares none of the destructive characteristics of humanity, contact with humans brings their fears and emotions back. Like any civilization, diplomacy begins to weaken. Caesar’s laws are opposed, his leadership is threatened and through mutual feelings of misunderstanding and blind hatred they each discover that they aren’t so different from the other.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an intelligent and challenging blockbuster feature, brilliantly directed by Matt Reeves. Technically, from the amazing ape effects to Michael Giacchino’s epic compositions, it is highly commendable, but it is the power of the story, and the profound impact of the civil and moral conflicts that really leaves an impression.
[rating=4] and a half
Andrew Buckle – follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22