Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a textbook example of what a franchise reboot should be like. It reinvigorated a dormant 45-year-old franchise that had already suffered through a disastrous reboot attempt by approaching the material from a unique and unexpected perspective – that of the ape who started it all. It was the rare franchise blockbuster that engaged the audience with impeccably-realized characters and moving storytelling instead of action and explosions. Director Rupert Wyatt’s film also took a strong stance against animal cruelty and lab testing. The reward was glowing reviews and a newly-minted franchise. The fact that no one expected it to be any good only sweetened the satisfaction.
With three years of goodwill, good buzz and a very good director in Matt Reeves at the helm, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a lot to live up to. I’m happy to report that it does. Darker, more violent and more ambitious than its predecessor, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ups the drama to Shakespearean levels, infusing the events of the film with plenty of socio-political subtext as well.
The sequel is set 10 years after the climax of the first film in which super smart apes, led by pet turned ape leader Caesar (performed by the brilliant Andy Serkis), stormed the Golden Gate Bridge before heading off into Miur Woods to start their own community. The unfortunate side effect of this revolt was the unleashing of a deadly virus that wiped out the majority of humans on Earth. Now, Caesar and his community are living a peaceful lifestyle in their village in the woods. But once again, the peace is breached when humans (among them Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman) enter the fray, begging for access to a dam that would power a human settlement across the Golden Gate Bridge in the City by the Bay.
While Caesar is sympathetic to the human’s needs, his lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell), a chimp that was viciously beaten by his human captors in the old days, sees this as an opportunity to kill them all. When Caesar denies him that opportunity, he construes this reluctance as a weakness. One request will lead to another, he contends. Humans are only capable of violence, he argues, using sign language – one of the more creative and absorbing methods of communication that Reeves carries forward from the first film. Koba has a point. But so does Caesar who retorts that preventing the humans from doing what they need would only cause desperation among their camp, which in turn would lead to war. The last thing the peaceful ape community needs is war. But war is imminent and even Caesar knows that. What he doesn’t know is the unexpected area where it’ll eventually spring from.
After directing Cloverfield, the Godfather of found-footage action movies, and the supremely underrated remake Let Me In, director Matt Reeves doesn’t have much to prove in the action filmmaking department but he nevertheless one ups himself here, crafting a series of terrific set-pieces throughout the picture that are both urgent and thrilling. One extended take in particular, which follows a human character as he tries to flee a building overrun by apes, is a standout. Another, in which an ape rides a horse through a wall of flames, is near-iconic.
Where the movie misses the mark is its characterization of the humans. None, and I repeat none of them are worth discussing because they’re all stock types: good human scientist, good female doctor, bad gun-crazy human, narrow-minded gun-crazy human, fear-mongering human. That’s a disappointment considering the talented cast of actors that were hired to fill out the roles. Oldman in particular is utterly wasted. Perhaps, it would have been a wiser strategy to completely shoot the film from the perspective of the apes. After-all, they’re a far more interesting bunch of protagonists. Regardless of the mediocrity of his co-stars, Serkis remains the MVP of this franchise – breathing complexity and life into Caesar with every bit of movement. His work is proof that even in the era of a CGI revolution, there’s no replacement for a brilliant actor.
It’s worth mentioning again that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a significantly darker and thematically denser film than its predecessor. If Rise was about the beginning of a revolution, then Dawn is what happens after the revolution has succeeded and balance has to be restored—except it’s easier said than done, especially when there are opposing ideologies at play. Internal conflict over opposing visions is a major theme at play here, and realizing that apes are just as susceptible to strife, greed and grotesque acts of violence makes for stimulating cinema. Though it rushes to a conclusion that feels rote rather than earned, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes stands as one of the most fascinating and absorbing studio efforts of the summer.
Director: Matt Reeves
Writers: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Principal Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Tobey Kebbell, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman
Editing: William Hoy, Stan Salfas
Cinematography: Michael Seresin
Music: Michael Giacchino
Running time: 130 minutes
Companies: 20th Century Fox
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language