Rise of the Planet of the Apes was so impressive it washed the taste of Tim Burton’s failed Apes remake out of our mouths for good. If there was a problem with the 2011 reboot, it was that the humans, while adequate, did not match the screen presence of the real leads of the film: Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his followers.
The sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, wisely keeps its focus on the apes while also putting enough thought into the humans to make director Matt Reeves‘ movie a consistently thrilling and emotional summer blockbuster.
Ten years after the Golden Gate Bridge showdown, the simian flu has killed billions. The Apes, who’ve now built a peaceful community together, even wonder if there are any humans left. Led by their strong leader, Caesar, who’s now a family man, they live by a simple code: apes don’t harm apes. They’ve seen the mistakes made by humans and do not want history to repeat itself. Their way of life is interrupted (as it often is) when people enter the picture. Led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a group of humans want to enter Caesar’s territory, hoping to bring power back to San Francisco. Both sides have to work together to make this happen, so naturally, hate and distrust bubble up between the two sides.
Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback‘s plotting is refreshingly straightforward and told with absolute clarity, creating a scenario driven far more by character than plot. Caesar, Malcolm, Malcolm’s son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Malcolm’s girlfriend, Elle (Keri Russell), all have these quiet moments — the kind that would normally be cut for pacing from most two-and-a-half-hour summer blockbusters — that reveal the humanistic complexity of these characters. Even the film’s villain, Kolba (Toby Kebbel), is given enough focus to make him more than just an evil, mustache-twirling ape, and the same goes for Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman), a human character that easily could’ve been written as a flat antagonist.
It’s a testament to the film’s strength that its emotional hight point derives from Dreyfuss, a supporting character without a lot of screen time. It’s a reminder of how much thought went into making a potential villain as important, vulnerable and empathetic as the film’s central heroes. The humans are no afterthought in this film.
We’ve seen two egregious examples of just the opposite this summer. With Godzilla and Transformers: Age of Extinction, the characters hardly registered as human beings. They’re blank slates hanging around as action unfolds around them. Not once while watching the humans in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is there a desire to cut back to the CGI impressiveness of the apes. Every member of the species now facing extinction has personality, goals and stories of their own. On top of that, they’re structurally important. Their decisions have consequences and impact Caesar’s journey.
As such, the human and ape stories come together perfectly, especially in how they mirror each other, offering up a lesson frequently shouted in anti-war films: both sides aren’t all that different.
Their drama is spectacle enough. There could be zero action set pieces in this movie, and it would still satisfy as a summer blockbuster. Then again, that would also be a shame, because the action is spectacular. What makes these set pieces standout is the emotional punch they carry. When all hell breaks loose — which nicely evokes the third act of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes — it’s not conventionally enjoyable; it’s brutal and difficult to watch. The gunshots and explosions are the opposite of eye candy. The final act of this movie is chaos, but it’s captured with intensity and clear vision by Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin. In particular, there are two excellent long takes that lets you feel the gravity of the situation, invoking the consistent terror which drips from the screen throughout the entire film.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes nails the spirit of the original series in that regard. They’re dark, often strange, movies that are not known for happy endings. Reeves and company reject (as Rupert Wyatt did with the reboot) the urge to Summer-ize a series known for its storm clouds. This is a drama first and foremost, with some action sprinkled in. Best of all, nothing in this movie feels calculated, prepackaged or made solely to sell toys. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes isn’t just a great time at the theater, but a genuinely great movie without a single dull moment.
The Upside: Emotional spectacle; Reeve’s exceptional direction; a well-structured character-driven script; WETA’s work keeps getting better and better; not a weak link in the cast; Michael Giacchino‘s score would’ve made Jerry Goldsmith proud; fun use of Charles Burns‘ graphic novel Black Hole.
The Downside: The 3D doesn’t add much to the experience.
On The Side: Gary Oldman was considered for Tim Roth‘s role, General Thade, in Burton’s Planet of the Apes.