“DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES” (Movie Review)
If 2011’s RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES surprised by being a lot better than many expected, its new sequel startles by upping the game even further. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a darker, more visceral and altogether thrilling film wedding humanistic themes to state-of-the-art blockbuster filmmaking.
One of the signs that RISE was really working was when two of its ape characters began communicating in subtitled sign language, and a moment that could have come off goofy instead carried genuine emotion. DAWN takes an even greater chance by not having any humans at all on screen in the first 15 minutes or so, trusting the audience to remain involved through setup scenes solely populated with lower primates engaging in that nonverbal communication. First, though, there’s a judicious prologue revealing that the “simian flu” introduced in RISE has swept the world, taking out a vast majority of the human population. The simians themselves, however, are just fine, having established a colony in the forests outside San Francisco, overseen by Caesar (Andy Serkis). He’s one of the few apes who can talk, though they all apparently can sign, with the little ones educated via crude pictograms by Caesar’s loyal orangutan friend Maurice (Karin Konoval).
Smartly setting up this community in the opening act to give us a sense of their relationships and customs, original scripters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and APES newcomer Mark Bomback then spark the inevitable conflict with humans. A small contingent from the city, which is rapidly running out of fuel, treks into the trees to scout and hopefully reactivate a power-supplying dam, and the first meeting between members of the two species does not go well. It falls to the group’s leader, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), to mediate a temporary truce with Caesar, yet it’s a peace that threatens to come undone at any moment. Both clans have members still smarting from injustices done to them by the other species, and the film does a nice job setting up parallel conflicts within each of the communities.
None of this would work if we weren’t totally convinced of Caesar and his followers’ accelerated sentience and intelligence, and Serkis, his fellow motion-capture actors and the team from Weta Digital, spearheaded by Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon, have truly outdone themselves here. More than just a completely convincing special effect, Caesar is one of the year’s all-around great movie characters—wise, conflicted, by turns angry and sympathetic toward our kind. It’s a great performance, period. But save some superlatives also for Toby Kebbell as Caesar’s lieutenant Koba, who has a particularly large chimp on his shoulder (sorry) from the many years of tests he endured as a lab subject. Spoiling to wipe out all humans and covetous of Caesar’s position at the top of the ape heap, he’s a fierce, riveting antagonist—and a clever one, too. An encounter between Koba and a couple of soldiers in their armory, in which he turns their expectations of his behavior against them, is the movie’s very best scene and a small masterpiece of nervously humorous tension.
Director Matt Reeves, taking over from the previous picture’s Rupert Wyatt, demonstrates a sure hand in both the smaller moments like this and the big, spectacular setpieces that ensue when the two tribes go to war. The handheld aesthetic he employed in CLOVERFIELD and the showstopping car accident in LET ME IN bespoke his fondness for conveying action in long takes, and there are a couple of doozies here, particularly when his camera takes the point of view of a tank turret. Throughout, his staging, compositions and cutting carry a coherence that stands in sharp relief to the bludgeoning bombast of certain other megamoviemakers, and Reeves keeps even the biggest clashes grounded in the characters’ emotions. He and the scripters generally do better by the people than RISE did with its largely one-dimensional supporting roles; it’s nice to see Clarke assume the (human) lead after his arresting turn in ZERO DARK THIRTY, Gary Oldman gets in some punchy moments as Dreyfus, overseer of the Frisco encampment, and Kirk Acevedo makes his hotheaded troublemaker Carver feel like more than a plot device. The only disappointment is that Ellie, the sole significant woman (played with understated warmth by Keri Russell), is given little to do but be nurturing—and that also goes for the sole significant ape female, Caesar’s mate Cornelia (Judy Greer).
This lapse aside, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is what all big summer sci-fi movies should aspire to be, delivering every bit of the excitement and large-scale intensity warm-weather audiences crave, while grounding it all in relatable emotion and wrapping it up in a first-rate craft package. Michael Seresin’s moody, often fire-lit cinematography stands in sharp contrast to RISE’s generally brighter visuals (and its frequent gloom suffers a bit in 3D, which isn’t a necessary choice when seeing DAWN), James Chinlund’s eye-filling production design perfectly realizes a world gone to seed and Michael Giacchino provides majestic musical accompaniment. It’s one of DAWN’s achievements that its story is so captivating, you don’t even think about all the technical skill that went into telling it while you’re watching it; indeed, only after the movie’s over might it occur to you that the beings who so fully engaged your sympathies in so many scenes existed only within a computer.