Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review
Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver
Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, and Kodi Smit-McPhee
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was without a doubt one of the more surprising movies of the last few years. What could have been a pointless reboot of a property with one failed reboot already under its belt became a legitimately terrific sci-fi movie with strong writing, effects, and an astounding central performance from Andy Serkis. Naturally, a sequel was put in the works, and here we are three years later with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: one of the rare sequels that improves on its predecessor in every way.
Dawn takes place a decade after Rise, with Caesar leading a utopic colony of intelligent apes located in Redwood National Forest. After a chance encounter with a group of humans leads to the accidental wounding of a young ape, tensions begin to rise between the two parties. Malcolm, the leader of the group, manages to talk Caesar into letting them work on a nearby hydroelectric dam so the nearby human colony can regain power, and the two gain a mutual respect of each other through their work together. However, Koba, an ape who was heavily experimented on by humans in Rise, grows distrustful of the humans and, eventually, even Caesar, and sets in motion a chain of events that inevitably leads to a clash between the human colony and Caesar’s apes.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was all about family and finding a place in the world. This was personified by Caesar’s struggle: he was raised by humans but can never truly be accepted by them, and he is rejected by apes due to his intelligence. And while Dawn definitely keeps the themes of the importance of family and home as the motivations for the two protagonists, it has a lot more in common with the classic movies from the sixties and seventies. It may be hard to grasp through the oodles of (still impressive) ape make-up, but the original Planet of the Apes was all about the self-destructive tendencies of man (and sentient ape), and how the innate selfishness of our actions will always, without fail, lead to our own destruction.
Dawn is no different. From the beginning, it’s obvious that these two civilizations are poised to clash. We’re watching with baited breath as they walk the thin line between peace and all-out war. The humans are distrustful of the apes because they blame them for the flu that wiped out most of humanity. The apes distrust the humans because of the experimentation that we did pre-apocalypse. And its precisely because of the prejudice, unwillingness to forgive, and fear of the unfamiliar on both sides that things escalate in the way that they do. This is a movie all about how the hatred that is an inextricable part of human nature will eventually lead to our doom. In that way, Dawn is dark but highly thought-provoking entertainment.
Of course, the story and its themes are assisted by the cast and their performances, which are terrific all around, but I’d be lying if I said that Andy Serkis wasn’t the obvious standout. I mean, will someone please give this man his frickin’ Oscar already? If you set aside the fact that he basically pioneered the art of motion capture acting with his scene-stealing role as Gollum in Lord of the Rings, that he brought new life to an iconic role in King Kong, and that he carried the first movie in the Planet of the Apes reboot series with ease, his work here as Caesar is still phenomenal. He is nothing less than enthralling in the role as he tries to keep the peace between his community and the humans. Most of the performance is given through facial expressions because Caesar uses dialogue sparingly, and it’s all the better for it. When things start to go wrong and his world starts falling apart around him, it’s heartbreaking to watch. I’m not gonna lie, I was near tears at some points. I eventually started to feel bad for Jason Clarke; the guy is obviously trying his best and gives a really good performance as Caesar’s human counterpart, but he just couldn’t hold a candle to Serkis.
Besides Serkis’s performance, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was also incredibly intense throughout. The first half of the movie builds and builds with the occasional, obligatory ten seconds of action, but it's at the beginning of the back half that s*** just starts to go down. At the halfway point of this movie, everything I thought I knew about the direction that it was going to go just went out the window and I had no choice but to sit back and watch the horror unfold. The trailers and marketing hinted at the big showdown between the humans and horseback riding, machine gun toting apes and, thanks to some superb direction from Matt Reeves, those scenes do not disappoint.
Obviously something has to be said about the effects, which are incredible to the point of awe. Seriously, there are times watching this movie where you completely forget that those are actual actors with mo-cap gear. Part of that, again, has to do with the performances, but there’s no use arguing against just how excellent these effects are and how much they add to the movie without *ahem* being the thing it relies on.
If there’s one problem with the movie, it’s that, in the first act, a lot of the dialogue comes off as unnecessarily expositional. It’s obvious that these lines were written with the express purpose of getting as much information across as possible without having to devote larger amounts of the runtime to it. Some of it is forgivable, but a lot of it feels clumsy and just plain unneeded; it’s stuff we didn’t need to know in the first place, but we find it being shoved down our throats anyway. It’s not a big problem in the long run, but it makes an otherwise strong first act a little weaker.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the few sequels to actually improve on its predecessor, standing tall amongst the likes of The Dark Knight, The Empire Strikes Back, T2: Judgment Day, and Aliens. Its effects are top-notch, the screenplay has a surprising amount to say about human nature, it’s rivetingly intense, and it’s all anchored by what may be a career-best turn for Andy Serkis. It’s first act may lose points for its sometimes unwieldy dialogue, but that does incredibly little to slow this movie down. Dawn isn’t just a great Planet of the Apes movie; it isn’t just a great sci-fi movie; it’s a great movie period.
(3 ½ / 4 stars)
Various Stuff and Such:
-Remember to comment with your own thoughts on the movie and follow the blog if you enjoyed the review.
-A lot of the cinematography, particularly towards the climax, was surprisingly great. I tip my hat to you, Michael Seresin. Good work.
-I gotta throw in a little something about this movie’s opening sequence, which is similar to the credits of Rise as it follows the spread of the disease that wipes out most of humanity. There’s news footage and radio broadcasts thrown in for good measure to get the scale of the epidemic across, and the result is simultaneously chilling, bleak, and captivating.
Wannabe Movie Critic