Cast: Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell, Keri Russell, Kodi Schmitt-McPhee
Director: Matt Reeves
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes was more fully realized and emotionally complex that it had any right to be; the kind of film that should have been a lame reappropriation of a series long relegated to the dusty cult film shelf, but instead emerged as a successful Hollywood blockbuster that didn't insult the intelligence. Tim Burton's ill-advised reboot notwithstanding, there's a lot of affection for the seminal franchise, especially the 1968 Charleston Heston-starring original. With Rise, director Rupert Wyatt took something that no one really wanted to see and gave it a level of class that took moviegoers and critics by surprise. Though it featured a rather bland love story between a scientist and his assistant (James Franco and Freida Pinto, respectively), the tale of an imprisoned ape named Caesar who, after countless experiments, breaks free from constraints and rampages across the Golden Gate Bridge with a throng of his primate comrades, was nonetheless successful in it's genre intentions.
Exit Wyatt, Franco, and Pinto, and enter director Matt Reeves, a whole new cast of thespians, and apes on horseback. Dawn of The Planet of the Apes picks up the story years after Rise, with the effects of Franco's well-intentioned scientist's research wiping out a large section of humanity through an outbreak of "Simian Flu", and posits a world on the brink of social collapse. While the humans huddle inside a grimy armory that lacks consistent electricity, the apes have moved into an elaborately designed encampment in the woods outside San Francisco. Through a combination of sound language and other rudimentary gestures, the apes have created a much more stable living environment than the humans, resulting in a film that takes the frazzled human-to-ape relationship to the breaking point while also making room for some Shakespearean-style betrayal amongst the primates. Placing anti-hero Caesar (Andy Serkis) at the forefront is a wise move, and the script by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback, takes the time in building the social nuances of the apes' culture and how tensions between the humans are incremental in understanding the world being portrayed. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trusts that audiences will get on the side of computer generated apes over their own, and in that sense, banks on Serkis' performance (aided by truly outstanding digital motion capture effects) to sell the whole thing as more than just a visual trick. Though there are some human survivors attempting to restore power to their society, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the film pivots not just on how much the apes will trust them in gaining access to an electrical dam located near the ape village, but also on Caesar's distrust of his own kind.
This tension, brilliantly realized by Serkis' portrayal, is built into Caesar from birth. Having been raised by Franco's compassionate scientist, he's learned that not all humans are evil, and by extension, that perhaps not all apes are superior to humans. The ape-to-ape tug of war that springs up between the fearless leader and Koba (Toby Kebbell), a once imprisoned, physically maimed ape whom Caesar freed, eventually becomes the crux of the story. Even though other human characters pop up; a world-weary woman (Keri Russell), a fly-off-the-handles crew member (Kirk Acevedo), Malcolm's adolescent son (Kodi Schmitt-McPhee), they are more or less interchangeable parts in a grander tale of ape betrayal, familial loss, and heroic grandstanding.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has it's fair share of fantastic visual moments; the opening image of Caesar's eyes, face smeared with warpaint, as the camera slowly pulls back, a fantastic shot atop a tank as Koba heads an all-out assault on the human compound, and what looks like an extended camera move through a warehouse where Clarke's everyman avoids explosions and flailing ape bodies. It's these moments that lifts Dawn slightly above the average summer action movie fare. There seems to be a distinguishable filmmaker behind the helm, and Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) has a way of combining state of the art digital effects with a lived-in believability that lends the film grittiness. However, despite the fact that nearly everything involving the apes is successful, there's no denying that the human characters are either thinly drawn at best, or at worst, completely irrelevant. This is crucially the point, seeing as how the plot somewhat concerns the bumbling stupidity of mankind in destroying their precious resources, but that doesn't make instances of clunky dialogue or bizarre character motivations easier to stomach.
Aside from Clarke, a good actor from films like Zero Dark Thirty and Lawless, no other human characters make much of an impact. Russell gets to look concerned, cry, and fawn over Clarke's rugged crusader, McPhee draws a ton of ape fan-art inside a tent, and Oldman spends most of his limited screen time bellowing monologues into a megaphone and running around looking frantic. This being an ape-centered enterprise, the sidelining and one-dimensionality of the humans isn't a fatal flaw. Like Godzilla, another summer tent-pole, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes treats it's human characters as if they are dim-witted rubes overshadowed by the awesomeness of the "other", but unlike Godzilla, this one doesn't take so long building up to it's most tantalizing elements. In fact, the first 15 minutes or so of Dawn introduces us to ape civilization in a way that makes it obvious that the remainder of the film will be mainly concerned with Caesar's inner and outer plight. Sure, he's an ape, but slightly something more than that, and the way the movie gets us to care about him emotionally is perhaps it's greatest strength.