Film Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

by Chad Liffmann on July 11, 2014

It’s always darkest before the ‘Dawn’.

Hail O'Mighty Caesar!

Hail O’Mighty Caesar!

In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the follow-up to the surprising and emotionally resonant 2011 reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we are treated to another slice of the 50-year-old Planet of the Apes universe that had, until now, only been hypothesized.  Part of the consuming mystery surrounding the original 1968 Planet of the Apes ending was wondering how the humans had destroyed the Earth and fallen prisoner to ape overlords.  Dawn offers just a small, yet undoubtedly significant, step on this inevitable path.  And yet, under the confident direction of Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has an epic feel that looms large with great performances, memorable and haunting action, and deep social commentary.

The story picks up ten years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  After an opening newsreel montage reminding us of the Simian Flu pandemic that was hinted at in the closing credits of the first film, we are thrown into Muir Woods, where Caesar is the respected leader of a thriving community of apes.  Now with a family of his own, Caesar is all about trying to keep the peace within his own community and with a band of humans that stumble upon the ape tribe.  The small band is part of a larger group of human survivors huddled together in an empty San Francisco.  Sympathetic father figure Malcolm (Jason Clarke) acts as moral compass of the group, while the larger human contingency has primarily looked to Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) for leadership, a man who has lost much and considers the apes to be nothing more than dangerous animals.  The apes and the humans make efforts to create a peaceful coexistence but as one might expect, the delicate balance exists on the verge of violent upheaval by even the slightest misconstrued action.

What’s most impressive about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that we’re allowed (even invited) to sympathize with both sides.  It’s rare that a film features violent conflicts that are so much exactly that — conflicting.  During the intense battles that erupt between the factions of humans and apes in Dawn, I didn’t know who to root for, nor did I feel right in rooting against either side.  I wanted the fighting to cease despite the incredible entertainment value afforded each action sequence (apes riding horses while wielding machine guns?…YES).  The fighting in Dawn does not match the spectacle of the battle on the Golden Gate Bridge in Rise, but this time we aren’t observing a “good guys vs. bad guys” type scenario.  Both sides have their reasons for fighting and their reasons for wanting peace.  None can be blamed for their actions, yet we feel that the consequences could have somehow been avoided and wish it were so.  As such, Dawn has a lot to say about the nature of war.  The film’s themes and commentary are quite relevant today, paralleling the international conflicts and malicious sentiments driven by fear, a history of violence, and the struggle to survive and defend one’s home at all costs.

Caesar and Koba stare down Malcolm (Jason Clarke)

Damned dirty apes Caesar and Koba and Maurice stare down the stinkin’ human, Malcolm (Jason Clarke)

If I may be blunt for one moment — Andy Serkis deserves an Oscar.  He deserved one for his work as Gollum/Sméagol in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.  He came close to deserving one for Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  He deserves one for Dawn.  At least nominate the guy!  We can tell that Serkis has matured with Caesar, and the steep learning curve depicted in the first film has made way for a wiser, emotionally burdened, and bolder adult Caesar. Simply put, his motion capture performance is astounding and full of subtleties and layered emotions relayed to us through total physicality (from the eyes to the mouth to the arms to the feet).  It must be mentioned that Toby Kebbell, playing the scarred ape victim of endless lab tests, Koba, does a remarkable job as well portraying the anguish and rage stemmed from a physically-tortured past.

If there’s one minor drawback in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s that the human characters don’t quite measure up to the depth of the ape characters.  We can excuse this inconsistency because the apes are, ultimately, the biggest draw of the series and it’s always been as such.  The apes and the big ideas. Dawn takes the great ideas and simian characters who were given a solid base in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and expands upon them.  Unless you’re completely new to the series and haven’t let any pop culture references seep into your brain, you know how this is all going to go down.  Yet, Dawn reminds us that there’s still intelligent ways to update and add meaning and thrills to an already established storyline.  Dawn serves as an intelligent summer spectacle, something we’re getting less and less of.  Oh, and we get apes riding horses while wielding machine guns.  Much obliged.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens in theaters July 11, 2014.

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