After the surprising critical and financial success of the franchise reboot/prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you couldn’t be blamed for looking at the sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Well, I’m happy to report that the former is well founded, while the latter isn’t necessary at all. Matt Reeves has taken everything you enjoyed about the last one and upped the ante here, making for a supremely entertaining summer blockbuster. Led by a towering motion capture performance by Andy Serkis and strong work all around (if less flashy on the part of the actual human characters) that matches the emotion and intelligence on display, we’ve got a rare instance of smart science fiction in a franchise outing. This Apes installment is everything that the Transformers outings aren’t, and coming on the heels of the last giant robot film, you can’t help but compare and see the difference having someone like Reeves at the helm makes. The flick does drag a bit in the third act and the human characters never get the emotional depth that the apes do (that sounds weird, but when you watch, it’ll make sense), but there are very few missteps here. Likely one of the best summer movies of 2014, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes should satisfy just about everyone headed to the theater this weekend.
Taking place a decade after the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we’re introduced (starting with the opening title credits) to a world where humans are more or less an endangered species. The so called Simian Flu that was unleashed wiped out most of us, leaving at least in California a planet dominated by apes. Out in the forrest, Caesar (Serkis) has become the leader of his group, helping them hunt and making their home a permanent one. He’s got a wife and children, an aggressive second in command named Koba (Toby Kebbell), and the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. They haven’t seen humans in a few years, but when they stumble upon a group led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the apes are split over what to do. Koba wants to make war, but Caesar is interested in keeping the piece, something Malcolm shares. The human refugee camp is similarly split, with their leader Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman) ready to fight, while Malcolm’s son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell) are among the few who want to try and work with the apes to restore power to the Bay Area. An uneasy truce is formed around getting a dam up and running, with Malcolm and Caesar almost bonding, as Koba seethes in the background. Peace won’t last forever, and some backstabbing leads to the beginning of an all out battle between man and ape.
Unquestionably, the star of this film is Andy Serkis. This is his best motion capture performance yet (or at least tied with his turn in King Kong that I’m so fond of), truly deserving of awards consideration. We feel for Caesar’s plight in a way that we don’t for anyone else, human or ape. Serkis is downright incredible. Words almost don’t do his work justice. Seeing is believing here folks. Toby Kebbell is excellent too playing the rageful Koba. Some of their moments together are downright chilling. Kebbell isn’t quite in Serkis’ league, but it’s still top notch work as well. Among the humans, Jason Clarke is solid as a good hearted man, while Gary Oldman is underutilized as the human leader. Clarke is a bit generic but likable, while Oldman does get one scene involving some pictures that will pull at your heartstrings. Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee are more or less wasted, while supporting players include Judy Greer (doing motion capture as another ape), Kirk Acevedo, and others. None can match Serkis though. God he’s good here.
At this point, we have to anoint Matt Reeves as our newest A list filmmaker. Reeves has yet to make a bad movie in my eyes, and here he shows just how well he can work with a big budget. This is one of the most seamless uses of special effects and sets that I’ve ever seen. There’s real forrest, not green screen, and it makes a difference. The visual effects are phenomenal, but Reeves is able to work with his cast to make this much more than a visual spectacle. Scribes Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver (the latter two partnered on Rise of the Planet of the Apes) make this as smart a movie as possible. They don’t always fully hit when they try to make allegorical references, but by and large they make the right calls here. Everyone works to make Dawn an upgrade over the already very good Rise in just about every way possible.
Awards wise, I’m sure some will try to launch a campaign for Serkis in Best Actor (he’s the movie’s lead), but we all know that won’t happen. Best Visual Effects might though, so mark that down as a likely nomination for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. As for Best Picture…can we just not kid ourselves? It’s really good, but it’s not quite that good.
Short of a slightly padded running time (it’s about two hours and ten minutes when it really should be just shy of two hours) and a feeling that you sort of know where things are going, there’s almost nothing not to like about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. This is a summer film, not just a summer movie, if you get the difference. Reeves, Serkis, and everyone else has worked to tell a story that utilizes groundbreaking effects work, instead of the CGI and such driving the plot/story. I applaud them for their choices and I really enjoyed this movie quite a bit. Anyone looking to be entertained and moved will be very pleaded with the flick that we have on hand. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a top notch film, so make sure you don’t miss it.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!