Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review
I would have never guessed that the prequel franchise to a film series about talking apes would ever hit me at such a personal level. Yes, I have been writing about the “Planet of the Apes” films on my Essentials column for the last two weeks, but there is a sense of fun to that franchise. What “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” did and what director Matt Reeves did with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is something different. There is still a sense of fun to these prequels, but there is also an emotional journey that I found substantially surprising. I never knew that the story, the theme and the characters would hit me as hard as they did here. But “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a bigger and smarter expansion of this prequel story, and I think audiences are going to be surprised by how affected they were by it.
The film opens showing us the pinpoints of how the epidemic from the first film gradually takes over the entire planet. The virus that erupted from the first film is called Simian Flu, and it took the lives of nearly every human on the planet. We learn how quarantine failed, we learn how the human race turned on each other, and we learn how the apes became the dominant species on the planet. Then we see connect with Caesar (Andy Serkis), and for a good ten or so minutes of the opening, we get an awesome glimpse of the culture Caesar and the other apes have created for themselves after the events of the first film. We also reconnect with Koba (Toby Kebbell), Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and Cornelia (Judy Greer) and I found it quite breath-taking seeing the world the apes have created. I liked that we got a chance to really see how their world worked and what made them tick. We see them hunt, we seem them give birth, we see what the home they have constructed themselves, it is all very absorbing and I was pulled into it all.
The apes live in a great peace, and that peace is threatened by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Malcolm and a search party accidently happen upon the ape civilization. It seems that all of the humans are not dead on Earth, and that they are striving to survive. That means passing through the ape civilization to generate power for the former city of San Francisco. Malcolm doesn’t want to fight the apes, but Dreyfus is more than ready to fight the apes. Not only that, but Caesar will do anything to keep the peace between his apes and the people inhabiting the former city of San Francisco but Koba hates the humans with a passion and wants to kill every single one of them. This sets up a harrowing adventure as well as a conflict of philosophies. The film itself revolves around Caesar and how he tries to keep a peaceful civilization running, even if it is not what all his people want. How can you help somebody trust a race that only gave them pain? How can you work with a race that fears and hates you in order to find resolve? I think audiences will be surprised how deep “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” digs and I found the result almost devastating.
The work done on all the apes is absolutely captivating, and features the very best of what can be done with top-of-the-line special effects. I was impressed by the effects work on the last film, but the scale of this film is so much bigger, and there are so many more apes that it makes the achievements evermore impressive. The work done by Serkis continues to captivate me and I especially like all the apes in this movie. I think all the actors did a very good job bringing the apes to life and they deserve major credit for their work. I also have to single out Toby Kebbell’s work as Koba. I never would have imagined that his character would be so fleshed out, but if you re-watch the first film, you can see those seeds planted early on. I love that he isn’t a “bad ape” for the sake of being a bad ape. There is a specific reason that he harbors such a strong hatred for humans. And every decision he makes, he makes for the sake of his people. He is overly loyal to Caesar, even if he has to be rougher compared to the other apes.
The same can be said about the humans. If you watch the trailers and if you know Gary Oldman’s reputation, you know he is going to be the really bad human. But there is a purpose to it, Oldman isn’t a bad human simply because the story needed one, he is bad for an equally important reason. Every character, whether they are human or ape, suffers from a trauma and how they deal with that trauma effects the entire storyline. I was very much impressed by the shades of gray that imbedded itself in the entire story. I also feel Gary Oldman gives yet another outstanding performance. The same can be said about Jason Clarke, or Keri Russell who plays Clarke’s new girlfriend, or Kodi Smit-McPhee who plays Clarke’s biological son. These humans have been suffering for many years; they don’t appear because the apes need a foil. That is what makes the film and its climax so much more emotionally demanding compared to other summer blockbusters.
That leads into my next point, this is a smart movie. There are some big action set pieces near the end of the movie, but there is not a gigantic action climax at the end. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” plays smart throughout, always pulling at your heartstrings, always engaging you emotionally. But when it’s time for some action, director Matt Reeves does not disappoint. I also applaud the cinematography by Michael Seresin, who makes a lush landscape between new ape civilization and human world torn by war and violence. I also loved the music by Michael Giacchino, I especially liked how it sounded modern but also in the vein of the 1970’s, I love the classic feel of the music and it elevated certain scenes in the film.
I know we still have roughly a month and a half of summer movie season left, but I bet that “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” will be the summer movie people talk the most about. There is awesome action and just as much awesome drama. It features a raw storyline as well as stunning special effects. It is brought to life by an incredible ensemble and created by an equally incredible crew. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” works in nearly every level there could be, visually striking and engaging in nearly every sense of the word. I loved every moment of it and I love how carefully constructed this prequel franchise has been handled so far and I only hope it gets better from here.
FINAL GRADE: A