Stars: Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer | Written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver | Directed by Matt Reeves
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will be categorized as a summer blockbuster because of its release date, high budget, and extensive use of special effects. However, its story and character first mentality along with its stark wiliness to take chances makes it an almost anti-blockbusters. Now that is not to say it is void of thrilling action or inspired set-pieces. There is plenty of entertainment to be had. It is simply not driving the story and in many ways the least interesting aspect of the entire film. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes may be a sequel to an already rebooted franchise. That does not mean it cannot be filled with innovative filmmaking that brings notable franchise to new highs.
The story picks up shortly after Rise of the Planet of the Apes’s conclusion. After the ALZ-113 virus was released it spread causing a worldwide epidemic. Unable to stop the virus humanity begins to crumble bit by bit. Governments lose control as panic fills the world. Eventual entering into a never-ending stage of chaos. Finally it appears the experiment that we call humanity has come to an abrupt end.
With the apparent absence of humans the apes that have fled to the Redwood Forest have flourished. They have established an idyllic culture that includes their own language, laws, and leadership structure. These opening sequences are memorizing. It is akin to watching a National Geographic voyeuristic documentary on an early primitive culture. Reserving dialog to subtitles and sign language is a rather bold way to open a genre film, and that boldness is rewarded with one of the most intriguing sequences in the film. Quickly and clearly it establishes that these apes are more than computer enhanced graphics. They are fully fleshed out characters with distinct and differing personalities.
Clearly the biggest reason these sequences work is because of the masterful special effects done Weta Digital Workshop. They have long been the kings of motion capture with their work on movies like Lord of the Rings and Avatar, but even those films pale in comparison to what they have accomplished here. This is the crescendo of this technology many have been waiting for. When distinguishing between reality and fiction becomes inconsequential. Obviously they are aware of how far they have come as the film opens focused squarely on the eyes of the lead ape Caesar—an aspect of motion capture that has long been criticized. There are no ‘dead eyes’ here, instead they are piercing beacons of emotion that make you feel like you are gazing at the soul of a manufactured creature.
Now this is not just Apes Gone Wild. Humans do play into the story as they stumble upon the ape’s conclave when looking for a damn they hope to use to bring the lights back on for the remaining human survivors. This begins an apprehensive reliance and rivalry between both the humans and apes. This unnatural alliance does not sit well with members of either side, and apes soon discover that the humans are not their only threat.
Jason Clarke plays one of the leaders of the human survivors. While the majority of the humans fear the apes and want them destroyed, he is fascinated by them and hopes all-out war can be avoided. Most of the humans where rather forgettable, including Gary Oldman whose role was much more limited than many might expect, but Clarke stood out as one of the more realized none-ape characters. His connection to the lead ape Caesar is the apex of this conflict. As they slowly build trust between one another outside forces see to usurp that trust out of fear of the other.
For all intents and purposes this is the ape’s movie—as the title indicates it is less about the fall of man and more about the rise of ape. In two films Caesar has grown into quite the lead. He is a fierce warrior, cunning leader, and now has become the loving head of a family. Being an ape does not hinder his characterization, if anything it is more of enhancement. His story arc and emotional depth are not lessened because of his species, and Andy Serkis responds by giving one of his most impactful performances yet. One can only hope that the award regulations that hinder him from being nominated will be removed so he can receive the accolades he so richly deserves.
Serkis is unquestionably the most prominent name in motion capture, but his work is among of cavalcade of astounding performances from faces you will never see. Toby Kebbell who performs the role of Koba does everything possible to steal the show. His distrust of the humans comes from a lifelong torture at hands of scientist. A stunning scene displaying the ‘human work’ done to him showcases that his hatred is born out of a place of pain. He sees the remaining humans as a threat to their way of life causing conflict between him and his sworn leader Caesar. Koba may become the villain of the summer with the Machiavellian like lengths he is willing to go. Once you have an ape with double machine guns on top of a horse it is nearly impossible to not walk away a winner. Perhaps best of all is the fact that his decisions come from a place of truth.
Ironically a story about talking animals has some of the best displays of human drama this summer. Characters actions are born from intrinsic motivations and hard decisions are not bluntly forced. This narrative it is not perfect as it becomes muddled with some of the ways it needs to manufacture conflict between the humans and apes. A baby ape stumbling upon a human weapon during a moment of peace does come off as a cheap way to increase tension. Still, the story issues are slight and easily forgivable when compared to everything it does right.
Hopefully this becomes the breakout hit that director Matt Reaves has been on the cusp of for such a long time. After movies like Cloverfield and the highly underrated Let Me In he has been on the verge of breaking out. Some worried, myself included, that the departure of Rupert Wyatt could hurt this sequel. Not only is that not the case Reaves brings a cinematic scope that was not there before. A spinning shot on top of rotating tank was spectacularly choreographed, and gave craftsmanship to some of the frenzied battles. Much of the action is reserved for the final act, and patience is paid off with some highly ambitious set pieces. The use Patrick Doyle’s score also gave it this domineering force as all hope appears lost.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does everything a sequel should do and more. Taking the foundation previously built, it further progresses its main characters in new an interesting ways. We live in a world full of remakes, reboots, sequels, and prequels. At times it appears that new ideas are going to way of the dodo. Movies like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes show that it is not where ideas start it is where they end up. Ingenuity and creativity can come from anywhere. Including a franchise that is nearly fifty years old.