The best film of the summer? R.G. finally gives us his opinion on the greatest Apes follow-up yet.
2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes – directed by Rupert Wyatt – is one of the best film reboots out there, giving the Planet of the Apes franchise a much needed reinvigoration. Led by Andy Serkis’ exceptional motion-capture performance, and a captivating story at its core, it was probably the most surprising entry of that year. Three years later, here we are with a follow-up – with a bigger crew and almost double the budget of the first. With better execution, a more engrossing story, bigger dilemmas, and further ambition with its special effects, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an outstanding sequel that improves upon the original.
A decade after the first film, a man-made virus has done catastrophic damage to human civilisation, killing many people as well as upheaving social and economic order around the world. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the intelligent ape that led a revolution among his kind to escape humans, has established a community in a forest outside of San Francisco. Within said city, the surviving people who are immune to the virus are settled in a heavily guarded tower amid the ruins. When Caesar and his gang of apes go hunting for food, they encounter a small group of humans – Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his wife Ellie (Keri Russell) and Malcolm’s teenage son Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee) – who are tasked with searching for a dam to power the city. The encounter quickly turns hostile, triggering a growing conflict between Caesar’s community and the human settlement, with Caesar’s second-in-command Koba (Toby Kebbell) and the leader of the survivors, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), wanting to go for the violent route. It is up to Caesar to keep both sides from going into an all-out war to protect his home and his family.
The original Planet of the Apes took a premise that is ridiculous on paper and actually made it something legitimate, successfully delivering compelling social commentary and a cautionary tale on the dangers of science. 20th Century Fox’s restart of the franchise is quite a deviation from what the 1968 film depiected, as it was a virus that damaged humankind instead of what was assumed to be a nuclear war. Regardless, the thought-provoking themes and haunting set-up that made the Charlton Heston flick a definitive science fiction classic still resonates within these new entries.
This reboot series sidelines the implications of its commentary and instead opts for poignancy – focusing more on what the characters are feeling rather than what situation they are in. This overhaul in tone and approach is one of the biggest reasons why Rises was such a surprisingly affecting watch. With Dawn, the drama and overall gravity of the emotional weight is upped ten-fold. While it’s not an absolute necessity to watch its predecessor first as Dawn stands very firm on its own, it’s a bonus to know what happened before to get a much deeper connection with its narrative and characters. Matt Reeves takes the directorial helm and, without undermining Wyatt’s admirable efforts with Rise, outshines him considerably. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver return as writers and they managed to carry on Rise’s dramatic momentum and atmosphere.
At face value, it’s one of the most technically impressive films to come out in recent years – evoking an extremely effective illusion akin to what the original Jurassic Park did with its dinosaurs. It would likely take a lot of time, effort, and money to train real-life apes to act in front of the camera so CGI is the most convenient route. Without entirely abandoning the people behind the prosthetics approach of previous entries, actors are garbed in motion-capture suits. Comparing Dawn’s presentation to Rise is almost futile since it just looks better and it feels more genuine. The apes seamlessly blend with the human characters and the atmospheric post-apocalyptic set pieces, and their designs are pristine in detail, which makes it an easy task to pinpoint which of the central apes are which. The finest demonstration of its ground-breaking effects work is the fantastic action scene involving a tank halfway through the movie, where it’s almost difficult to tell what is real and what was made on a computer.
The most brilliant aspect of the film’s narrative is that it makes you question which side is in the right, with both parties having completely justified reasons for why they should benefit more than the other, giving Dawn a particularly strong air of politics and moral ambiguity surrounding it. Caesar has to play diplomat to ease the tension brewing between his ape clan and the humans. While he assumes that his kind is much more benevolent than humans, he eventually learns that things aren’t as black and white as he thinks. This development is much sounder if you know what happened in Rise. Raised by a human, Caesar is probably the only one in his community to know the better side of humanity, and he knows that negotiation is a much better option than outright attacking them. This, of course, sows doubts within his fellow apes, particularly from the psychologically and physically-scarred Koba, who sees their hairless relatives as uncaring savages as he used to be experimented on. On the human’s perspective, they blindly blame the apes as the cause of the virus, appropriately named the Simian Virus, and their desperation for survival makes them reckless. All this volatility and fragility between the two primate groups makes the movie unsettling in its suspense.
The dramatic and emotional heart of Dawn comes from the characters themselves – from how they interact with each other to how each moment motivates them. Much like his performance in Rise, motion capture veteran Serkis is just phenomenal as Caesar in his best role since Gollum from Lord of the Rings, giving a seemingly computer generated character a lot of personality, emotion and realism. His mo-cap companions, particularly Kebell’s terrifying yet sympathetic Koba who could’ve easily been a one dimensional villain, follow suit to Serkis in delivering exceptional gravitas under a lot of digital cosmetics. With the exception of Oldman – who oddly enough has the least screen time out of the main human characters – the cast of people are not comprised of big names, which is a plus because it adds to the film’s grounded feeling. Clarke gives an understated take of the optimistic and sympathetic human that bond with Caesar, though he does come off as a bit too familiar to James Franco’s character from the previous film. The always brilliant Oldman – even with a small screen presence – demonstrates his powerhouse acting abilities and delivers a good balance of over-the-top antics (though not too much) and a heavy sense of subtlety in his performance.
Dawn pretty much works as both a technically brilliant extravaganza and a compelling piece of cinema. Continuing with Rise’s unexpected refresh of an almost dead franchise, Dawn solidifies and legitimises the Planet of the Apes film series as the science fiction juggernaut it once was. Its screenplay, performances, production values, and overall direction are so outstanding that it’s sometimes quite baffling why it was a blockbuster film in the first place. Behind its nearly flawless special effects, it has a fantastically written story filled with intensity, action, drama, and believable characters. The ratio does tip in the apes’ favour a tad bit, which makes some of the humans lack in interest, but its sharp writing always leads into impressively controlled neutrality for both parties in reasoning. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a smart, emotionally satisfying, and dramatically powerful movie – by far the best film of blockbuster season.