This review was originally published on July 1st, 2014. I’m republishing it now since the film is now in theaters.
After a brief credits sequence explaining how the virus from the last film wiped out most of the human population, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins with an extreme closeup of Caesar’s eyes. The camera slowly pulls back, revealing every tiny detail of his face. Even though I know intellectually that actor Andy Serkis is providing performance capture work to play this character, the movie doesn’t even give you a split second to think about that: there is no Serkis, there is only Caesar. It’s a ballsy move on director Matt Reeves’ part, too, because if the graphics aren’t quite up to snuff, you’ll instantly be able to tell. He’s essentially daring you to find a flaw, but in this shot – and in fact, in every shot involving apes in this movie – there are none to find. The visual effects team at WETA has outdone themselves once again, giving us a movie in which the apes look completely and totally real.
Picking up a decade after the events of the surprisingly good Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn continues the story of Caesar, the ape leader who has now built a family and a peaceful ape community in the woods outside San Francisco. It’s been years since they’ve interacted with humans, and the thought occurs to the apes that maybe the humans have been fully wiped out. But they soon discover that isn’t true: a small group led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) intrudes on their territory in search of a nearby dam, looking to get it started again so they can restore electricity to San Francisco, where the surviving humans live in a makeshift post apocalyptic society led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).
Following an intense confrontation, a wary Caesar allows the group to leave, and then brings an army of apes to the human camp to lay down the law: if the humans stay in their camp, the apes will stay in theirs. They don’t want war. But Malcolm knows the dam is their only hope to generate electricity, and the humans are running out of fuel. So, along with his girlfriend (Keri Russell), his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and a handful of others, he sets off into the woods to try to explain the situation to Caesar. Dreyfus, however, isn’t holding out hope for a peaceful ending – he gives Malcolm three days to return before he and the rest of the humans come into the woods guns blazing.
The script, by Rise writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (and aided by The Wolverine scribe Mark Bomback), places heavy emphasis on story and character, a refreshing change of pace from the garbage of Transformers: Age of Extinction. There are a handful of enormous set pieces here, but they all feel like natural extensions of the story instead of an excuse to create a money shot that would look good in the movie’s trailer. There’s a lot to chew on thematically, with ideas about family, community, fatherhood, and resolving conflicts played out in parallel stories between Caesar and Malcolm. There’s also a pretty clear anti-gun message, particularly relevant given the barrage of school shootings that have been tearing through this country over the past couple of years.
Koba (Toby Kebbell), Caesar’s second in command, has a bitter distrust of humanity and doesn’t take kindly to Caesar’s more strategic tolerant treatment of them, while there are many on the human side who have lost family members to the simian flu and aren’t thrilled themselves with the idea of making contact with the apes. The threat of violence is constantly bubbling under the surface, waiting for one trigger-happy man (or ape) to push this carefully orchestrated truce into all-out chaos. The suspense is so well-constructed and the stakes are so well established that when we finally get to the image of apes on horseback firing automatic weapons, we don’t revel in the ridiculousness of it, but shake our head at the tragedy of just how close the two sides could have come to avoiding a war.
Michael Giacchino’s score is terrific, highlighting beautifully emotional moments with strings and a quiet piano and avoiding the Hans Zimmer-style bombast that populates most of the summer blockbusters of today. It perfectly complements Serkis’ stirring performance as Caesar, work which tops the actor’s already stellar resume. Clarke, Oldman, and the rest of the human cast members are fine, but this movie belongs to the apes. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the best science fiction movies of the past decade, and it proves that even in a film culture overrun with mega-budget monstrosities, studios still have the ability to make intelligent, moving summer blockbusters.
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