Very few sequels outdo their predecessors. Some will credit Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II as the greatest sequel of all-time while I find the wonder and amazement in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back as the best science fiction film of all-time. When the first trailers started to appear for Matt Reeves‘ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the follow-up to Rupert Wyatt’s reboot from 2011, I was ready for “Cheesefest 2014.” I thought we would have apes and monkeys speaking long, drawn-out stories about politics, life, and love. Similar to Tim Burton’s reboot failure from 13 years ago. What we get in this stunning edition is an action-packed, multi-layered story that stands as the definitive summer blockbuster. Actually, thinking about it, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes isn’t just a summer blockbuster, it’s a full on dramatic epic.
Starring Andy Serkis as Caesar, the film takes ten years after the events of the first film. Humans have been nearly wiped out of the Earth, and Caesar and his fellow apes have built a civilization in the wooded and abandoned San Francisco area.
The growing debate about motion capture is put to the ultimate test in this second installment. For years, fans and pundits have championed the talented Serkis in his role as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films, most pertinently in The Two Towers. Other films followed with a similar argument including James Cameron’s Avatar since then. In the 2011-2012 awards season, some critics came around to the idea. Serkis scored a nomination from the Broadcast Film Critics Association for Best Supporting Actor, a huge feat for the motion capture community. I’ll be honest, I’ve never embraced the idea of an actor getting recognition for this type of performance, not that I’m against the notion, I just haven’t seen something that made me champion a performance….until now. Serkis’ turn as Caesar this time around is a fully realized and gracious work that stands as one of the great performances of the year. It’s a gorgeous triumph and the highlight of the entire picture.
What makes the film even more special is that Serkis is not the only actor that shines this time around. While Serkis has carried the torch for motion capture actors for years now, he has some company in Toby Kebbell who plays the conflicted and vicious Koba, Caesar’s right hand ape. Kebbell’s multi-layered and glimpse into his inner-darkness is stunningly profound. He raises a plethora of intriguing questions about the nature of justice and the power of vengeance. Unrestrained, violent, and at times, downright terrifying, Kebbell is sensational.
After sadly losing the Visual Effects Oscar in 2011 to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Reeves’ film is ready for a second bout. Everything that sings in the film is due to the visual effects team. There’s a big pay off to the intricate detail they spent on each character. The entire technical team should be applauded. A panoramic look through a perspective of a tank along with a reflective look through a window, Cinematographer Michael Seresin emotes as one of the most exciting veteran DP’s that we should be ashamed to have forgotten. Composer Michael Giacchino knows how to set tempo, build excitement, and pull back when necessary. His score is pretty darn spectacular on every musical note.
Where the film falters unfortunately is in the development of the human characters. Trite, boring, and utterly predictable, especially when it comes to the women, leave much to be desired. Jason Clarke‘s Malcolm balances some of the over-the-top back stories with true, natural talent. Equally effective as James Franco in the first one, Clarke continues to explore his acting options well as his career continues to elevate.
I love nearly everything about Keri Russell. I feel she is a phenomenal talent that has proved her abilities several times over including currently on FX’s “The Americans.” Unfortunately for her, she’s relegated to virtually nothing with the occasional screaming of Malcolm’s name, and a lazy back story that involves A-typical female behavior. I’m very pleased to see Kodi-Smit McPhee getting older and growing into himself. I thoroughly enjoyed him here. Academy Award nominee Gary Oldman kind of wallows around the film. There’s no real arc to his character and if you pluck him out, I’m not sure if anything changes.
Overall, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gets the job done and does it well. Astounding direction by Matt Reeves that blows anything that Garreth Edwards did in Godzilla look like a high school musical. It’s one of the best surprises of the year along with being one of the finest. The film is now playing in theaters.