Review: 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' Evolves to New Heights
by Jeremy Kirk
July 11, 2014
"We're such little creatures. Poor humanity's so fragile, so weak. Little, little animals." So said Edward Chapman at the end of H.G. Wells' 1936 sci-fi, war, epic, Things to Come. Wells' animal reference in regards to human beings falls under both fact and metaphor. We are all animals, but something darker, more vicious, seems to always be growing at the heart of this humanity we call ourselves. It wouldn't be until 1968 that the animals or, in this case, apes would really take over the world. Planet of the Apes was a cultural phenomenon that I really don't need to tell you about, a shock-wave of a franchise that would only need a little time before it sprung into action once more. We never expected the franchise would return like this.
It's difficult to keep from saying 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes shouldn't have worked. Every movie has the potential to surprise and even stun you. Tim Burton's 2001 attempt at relaunching the Planet of the Apes shuttle even had potential, but the fizzling impact it left that Summer resonated with fans of the original series. Thankfully, those behind Rise (screenwriting team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver with Rupert Wyatt directing) knew where their story had to begin.
Now, finally, we get to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and, once more, the team behind it know precisely in which direction the franchise needs to head. Scratch that. That is putting it too mildly. This film is next-level, blockbuster filmmaking. Where its immediate predecessor surprised audiences on multiple occasions, Dawn absolutely stuns combining genius storytelling and world-building, packing it with wholly engaging characters that will surely go down as cinematic legends, and bringing it all to brilliant life with not only groundbreaking, visual effects technology but a solid eye for graphic nuance courtesy of incoming director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield and Let Me In).
No slight on Wyatt's valiant results, but Reeves is the perfect choice to take on the Planet of the Apes franchise, especially given the direction it has taken. No stranger to finding the emotionality in both the giant monster and vampire sub-genre, Reeves seems ideal to take on the continuation of Jaffa and Silver's story, that being Caesar's story really. In Rise, we saw Caesar (brought to life via motion capture animation and the spectacular Andy Serkis, but trust me when I say we will get to him) as a chimpanzee child before an experimental drug skyrocketed the ape's evolutionary progress. We saw that, too, and the ensuing revolt of ape against man sparked the potential for a blazing, war epic. Serving as prologue to the 1968 original, Rise also introduced the pathogen that would begin destroying the population at a staggering rate.
It's 10 years later when Dawn begins, the virus decimating 90% of human beings while Caesar and his clan of evolved apes live in the wilderness outside of San Francisco. Caesar now has a wife, one son, and another child is born shortly after the film begins. He is living his life, leading his clan as tranquilly as possible, not sure if mankind even exists any more or completely slipped away into history. There's a shock when the apes come face-to-face with the surviving humans, a small band of survivors living in the ruins of the nearby City by the Bay who venture into the redwood forest searching for a power source. Violence immediately erupts.
Jaffa and Silver return to scripting duties with an assist by recent blockbuster scribe Mark Bomback, but, regardless of who contributed what, the screenplay at work in Dawn is the strongest the series has ever seen. Although the film is loaded with tension it moves at a deliberate pace, taking its time to reestablish ourselves with not only Caesar but this world the humans have created around him. The first portion of the film is all-Ape City, deer hunts and sign language abound and none of it lost in their translation to us. Once that violence erupts, though, the powder keg is lit, a ticking clock of hazardous motivations that are all, intricately defined by the screenplay.
Jason Clarke leads the small band of humans, Gary Oldman the head human in charge back in the city, and though the film's screenplay lays out their motivations well, it really is the Ape's show through-and-through. It's not that the human element here is lacking, far from it. Reeves pushes Clarke and Oldman (as well as Kodi-Smit McPhee, Keri Russell, et al) to incredibly powerful performances, their scenes end up serving as filler between the awesome, breathtaking visual storytelling and filmmaking with the apes.
Visual effects have come a long way even in the three years since Rise, yes, but the narrative around Caesar and his apes is as moving as it is inventive. Naturally, apes have been the headliners for most of the Ape films (Charlton Heston can keep his one film), but the advancement in digital animation can finally pull off the photorealism necessary to truly bring this ape army to life. It's the real-world Planet of the Apes we're being offered with this new series, the sci-fi answer to The Dark Knight's Batman. Reeves and crew pull off a world changed by disease and evolution and masterfully execute a very real possibility for the distant future of this planet. Things change when evolution is at work, life finds a way. Thankfully, that process can be moved along quite a bit given today's filmmaking technologies.
No revelation is greater in Dawn than a man in a role we've seen before. Andy Serkis takes full charge of the Caesar character, coming through the digital effects placed over his performance with effortless grace and vibrant passion. Caesar is, for lack of a better term, a good ape, Serkis embodying all the charisma, care, and bravery the character requires. If Serkis has any competition in the performance area, it's with Toby Kebbell, taking on the evolved form of Koba, Caesar's second-in-command who despises humans and for good reason. As with Serkis, it would be assumed the motion capture photography would dampen the performance, but Kebbell bursts through Koba's physical guise, every utterance of dialogue from the character becoming a moment of spectacle.
It's mostly spectacle at work in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a Summer blockbuster that accomplishes cinematic escapism of the highest form while still providing some incredible commentary on the state of the world. That earlier quote from Wells' Things to Come was answered by Raymond Massey who said, "Little animals. If we're no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done."
Dawn is not only a film that depicts how our modern world becomes the one first seen in 1968, a world where Apes rules and human beings are kept as slaves. It shows the fragility of any species and how one, tiny shift can cause an avalanche of cataclysmic events. At its heart, though, Dawn is a Summer blockbuster that dares to empathize with those who may take us over. These aren't invading aliens that have no semblance of humanity. This is a race of creatures from Earth who are simply trying to keep their place in the world. With everything in its power, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes transcends its B-level roots and evolves, suitably, into something atonishing.
Jeremy's Rating: 10 out of 10
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