Movie Review – Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

Principal Cast :  Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell, Nick Thurston, Kirk Acevedo, John Eyez, Enrique Murciano, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Doc Shaw, Jocko Sims, Judy Greer, Lee Ross.
Synopsis:  Ten years after a pandemic disease, apes who have survived it are drawn into battle with a group of human survivors.


A new dawn.

One of the major surprises of 2011’s film season was the success, commercially and critically, of Rupert Wyatt’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, a reboot of Fox’s Planet of The Apes franchise (after Tim Burton’s unsuccessfully plodding attempt a few years earlier) and a film that once more projected Andy Serkis’ work in performance capture into this “he should get an Oscar” spotlight. With the increasingly substantive improvement in visual effects, the idea of the apes being a “man in suit” creation was scrapped in favor of entirely digital constructs, which worked a treat back in 2011. Skip forward a few years to now, with Dawn of The Planet Of The Apes, a sequel continuing where Rise left off: mankind is wiped out by the ALZ-113 virus, leaving only scattered scraps of humanity to remain, while the apes, now existing in the forest, survive and adopt more humanoid characteristics. A rudimentary civilization is born, as the apes intelligence is enhanced as a result of the genetic tampering told in Rise. With Wyatt not returning, incoming director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Cabin In The Woods) has the chance to tell the “after” side of the ruin of humanity, as we take to the forest to reclaim our planet from the apes that have claimed it.

Wait.... is that MeatLoaf?
Wait…. is that MeatLoaf?

Rise Of The Planet of The Apes was a terrific film in its own right, setting itself in the realm of “well, this could happen” instead of the original series’ thoroughly sci-fi roots. Drawing on a sense of modern realism, Rise took us to the genesis of the saga, as humanity, in search of a cure for Alzheimer’s, accidentally unleashed its own destruction, resulting in the scales of planetary power shifting to our simian cousins. Dawn is set a decade later – humans exist in rag-tag clumps of survivors, existing in the most rudimentary fashion as civilization has essentially collapsed. Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads the Apes, now living in the forest away from the ruins of humankind, in a peaceful existence of hunting, growing as a family, and learning. Rise’s closing credit epilogue to humanity’s downfall is reprized here in the opening, interspersed with more and more frantic declarations of our superiority in the face of the pandemic, before the planet falls dark as power, communications and eventually life itself, switches off.

Because this is in NO way confrontational!
Because this is in NO way confrontational!

Dawn’s tone is dark, certainly a lot darker than Rise, and perhaps darker than any of the Apes films to have come before. It is also somewhat hopeful, nay, almost mournful, that our world could get to this stage of life. A melancholic fatality pervades the story, as humans and apes grow into conflict, a conflict that will see either one species or the other reign supreme on this planet. Written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the film doesn’t appear to pull any favorites; both humans and apes are shown with their relative flaws and positives in equal measure, meaning the heartbreaking nature of the premise, of apes superseding us on Earth, only resounds even stronger, because we’re not drawn particularly to either aspect of the conflict – we’re impartial observers, in a manner of speaking. The humans, naturally, want peace (mainly), until Dreyfus (Gary Oldman in top form) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) arrive to spark conflict. Caesar and his Apes only want peace for themselves, as established when he advises the humans to stick to “their patch”, while the apes continue to live in peace in the forest. What’s interesting in Dawn is that humans just want to survive, while Apes have the bulk of the story conflict with either killing, or being killed. This inter-human conflict is perhaps the film’s strongest subplot, amidst the human-ape stuff, although you can get the sense that perhaps, just perhaps, the bias works more in favor of Caesar and his crew than with Dreyfus and Malcolm.

Look, it's a baby George W Bush!
Look, it’s a baby George W Bush!

One thing the Apes franchise has always been good at is its analogous parallel to humankind’s flaws in dealing with nature and the environment. The original film, Planet of The Apes, dealt with Charlton Heston’s astronaut character landing on “Earth” and finding Apes had become the dominant species in much the same way Humans are today, while Humans were regarded as subservient, or “slaves” to the ape overlords. This role reversal allowed the franchise to shine a spotlight on where we, as a species, perhaps have been going wrong – certainly the continued deforestation of tropical jungles, and the continued expansion of our cities and farms, have induced a level of reflective guilt at where we are as a species – perhaps it’s about time we were brought down low, if for nothing else than to remind us how fragile our world, and its valuable ecosystems, really are. Dawn treads eerily similar ground in this respect, although it’s less widescreen with human desolation as it is about the manner in which conflict escalates out of so simple a problem. Humans kill randomly (usually out of fear or lack of control), while it’s established early in the film that the Apes, although intelligent, appear myopic to the idea of killing without cause (they kill for food, and until this film, little else). Dawn’s violent pathways lead the humans into battle with the Apes, frankly a battle that could have been avoided if we’d just left well enough alone.

No, you be The Mad Hatter, and I'll be the White Rabbit!
No, you be The Mad Hatter, and I’ll be the White Rabbit!

Dawn’s dark tone is, most auspiciously, derived from this darker side to our natures. The rise of terrorism in the wake of 9/11 and America’s invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq, have allowed us to witness some truly horrific and remarkable acts by human beings in the years since. Dawn taps into that violent, horrendous mindset, through Dreyfus, who is convinced that humans cannot survive unless the Apes are out of the way, refusing to see Malcom’s idealism as anything other than stupidity. Oldman knows how to play it softly, and he makes Dreyfus a sympathetic combatant in this fight, in terms of his belief in what he’s doing to salvage humanity (when, in all honesty, it’s a little beyond salvaging) and the fact that he (we) is no longer king of the schoolyard. He regrets having to fight the apes, but knows humans might not make it if they don’t. Clarke is just as convicted by this dichotomy of emotion, being ostensibly empathetic to the Apes cause and to human being as well, although Clarke’s Malcolm is a little more circumspect and “big picture”, recognizing moreso than Dreyfus just how far down the rabbit hole the Apes already are. Malcolm, however, still yearns to return to the “old days”, maybe somehow reconcile a peace between Apes and humans.

Aaaaaallllllllllll offfff themmmmmmmm!!!
Aaaaaallllllllllll offfff themmmmmmmm!!!

Really, though, the primary arc in Dawn’s complex narrative is with Caesar, brought to life again by performance capture legend Andy Serkis. Serkis brings his performance to another level (anyone who witnessed his reprise of Gollum in An Unexpected Journey would be aware that the man is still the go-to guy for this kind of digital artistry) and so to do the CG folks who provide the animation of not just Caesar, but the entire legion of Apes within this film. This film is large scale Ape-work, not confined to the dozen or so of the previous film, and it’s a testament to the creative genius of Serkis, Toby Kebbell (as Caesar’s second-in-command, the traitorous Koba), Karin Konoval and Hobbit movement specialist Terry Notary, for giving us such nuanced, incredibly complex Ape characters to follow through this movie. The mix of motion capture performance, and digital animation, is utterly sublime, and a significant step up from Rise’s already brilliant work. Serkis makes us feel for Caesar, conflicted with his desire for peace in a world hunting for war, bringing the ape to “life” as only he can. Similarly, Serkis made Peter Jackson’s simian hero in King Kong the most lifelike of all the characters in that movie, so perhaps Serkis is at his best when humanizing the inhuman?

Great beach party! Now, where are the babes?
Great beach party! Now, where are the babes?

Dawn of The Planet of The Apes is a blockbuster movie that has something most blockbusters do not – brains. There’s intelligence behind every frame and beat of this movie, and it’s refreshing. It’s also quite a dark, post-apocalyptic tale for a modern blockbuster, the majority of which tend to be shiny explode-a-thons filled with Big Stars and Big Effects. Matt Reeves, who delivered a film in near complete darkness with a huge monster in Cloverfield, gives Dawn a soft, almost imperceptibly dull quality to the cinematography here, muted to the extreme (an early Ape sequence involving hunting of elk through a forest is indicative of the dingy, dullard style the film has going for it, in both visual tone and narrative melancholy) but always riveting. The effects, particularly the apes, are the “money shot” of this film, and they truly are remarkably realistic. If you showed this film to somebody from the 1900’s no doubt you’d have their brains exploding thinking this was all real, that’s how real these things look. What I enjoyed about Reeves work here is that he “gets” that it’s a blockbuster, and so delivers the Big Moments as audiences expect, but subverts that with intelligent writing, and a refusal to accent the deficit of audience understanding with a more simplistic approach to the material. Oh, how I enjoyed this.

If he tries to feel me up, I'm so out of here!
If he tries to feel me up, I’m so out of here!

I admit to not really giving too much of this film away – truth is, it’s a film best discovered without too much preconceived attitude, so I’m inclined to leave things as tangential and obscure in my review as I can without spoiling the plot. From the acting to the direction, to the brutal canvas on which Reeves paints his tale of desolation (on both sides of the mammalian scales), Dawn of The Planet Of The Apes is both a terrific film on its own, but a more than worthy follow up. In many respects, it’s even better than Rise, largely because the “origin” story is no longer occupying the narrative; instead, we can get into the meat and gristle of this increasingly complex story of man versus ape. The characters are more “shades of grey” rather than black and white (which is what they tended to be in Rise), and the scope of the film’s story is enlarged, even though it remains gloriously intimate. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is splendid, captivating, dynamite entertainment, and one of the most accomplished films of 2014. Expect an Oscar for visual effects, if not a nomination for Best Film. It’s that good, IMO.

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