Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up a decade after the milestone events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, revealing a new world order in which genetically-enhanced ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) has successfully established an ape colony in the wilderness outside of San Francisco. With a family by his side and a tribe to lead and protect, Caesar feels content with the life he chose amongst his fellow apes. However, when evidence of humanity’s survival comes (literally) walking up to the apes’ doorstep, the situation changes quickly – and drastically.
After meeting the kind and intelligent Malcolm (Jason Clarke), Caesar is forced to confront emotions about humanity he thought he’d left behind. But while Caesar still remembers the good in humans, his friend and lieutenant, Koba (Toby Kebbell), only remembers the cruel savagery of being their lab rat. In Koba’s eye, Malcolm and the human stronghold he comes from are all deadly threats to apes; meanwhile, on the human side, war-worn human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) feels much the same way about the apes. With factions of their respective camps angling for conflict, Malcolm and Caesar try to find common ground between man and ape, so that both species may live peacefully on what is left of the earth.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was nothing less than a dark horse success story. It took an exhausted sci-fi property (which Tim Burton had already failed to reinvent for the 21st century) and gave it a compelling and moving restart bolstered by some revolutionary motion-capture performances – most notably that of actor Andy Serkis as Caesar. Well, it’s easy to report that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes everything great about the first film and kicks it up to a higher level, resulting in one of the best (and most technically proficient) films of the year.
In short: This is the best film in the Planet of the Apes series, and a film that once again raises the question of whether or not motion-capture performers deserve the same awards considerations as any other actor.
The sequel trades Rise director Rupert Wyatt for Cloverfield and Let Me In director Matt Reeves – a trade that turns out to be for the better. From the very first image to the very last, Reeves makes the bold choice to make the apes his primary focus – an extremely daunting task (narratively and technologically) which he rises to meet, and then, conquers. The world of the film feels like a natural extension of where Rise left us, but it is so well-designed and technically sound that the spectacle of seeing it is, in and of itself, worth the price of admission (and the 3D upgrade). This is one of those visual event films you want to experience in full theatrical glory.
More than that, though, Dawn is proficient as a piece of cinema. In fact, calling it a “blockbuster” is a limiting term, as the film is arguably on the level of an Oscar-bait drama. There are moments in the movie of brilliant visual shorthand and iconographic imagery; awesome visual and audio nods to sci-fi greats like Stanley Kubrick (Oscar-winner Michael Giacchino’s score shines in such moments); action set pieces that are thankfully more competent (but still just as epic and gorgeous) as Michael Bay’s Transformers; even comedy and horror beats that are extremely effective at keeping things light and scary, respectively.
Tying it all together is a well-crafted and focused character drama with relevant socio-political overtones, which uses an outlandish premise to address something important about the state of the world and the human condition – in the way that only quality sci-fi can. Credit goes to The Wolverine writer Mark Bomback for helping Rise writers Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa truly expand upon the Caesar character and his world and how all of it is relevant to ours. This film – in a way not seen since the original PoTA – makes highly effective use of its sci-fi metaphor.
The human cast – Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty), Gary Oldman, Keri Russell (The Americans) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) – are given the hard task of having to play supporting characters in an ape-led film, while still presenting more than one-note “evil human” caricatures. Credit goes to Clarke and Oldman in particular – but all of the principal homo sapiens are able to convincingly infer the deep trauma and desperation lurking just beneath the re-established veil of civilization. We are able to know and relate to the human players without ever really knowing them; a crucial piece of the puzzle that creates a necessary complexity to the different sides of the ape/human conflict, and elevates the story to a much higher and more compelling level of drama.
Of course, what everyone will leave this film talking about are the motion-capture ape performances, and lead ape actors Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell deserve awards consideration for their work in this film. By now it’s almost considered a t-shirt slogan to say that Andy Serkis deserves an award for creating memorable motion-capture characters like Gollum, King Kong and Caesar – what’s there to add except that Caesar in Dawn is Serkis’ (and Weta’s) most complex, nuanced, and visually-impressive creation yet? Keep printing those t-shirts, I guess. One day he’ll get the acclaim he so clearly deserves…
The real revelation in the film, however, is Toby Kebbell (Prince of Persia) as Koba. The Caesar/Koba arc is the most dynamic and emotional in the film, and Kebbell is almost frighteningly good bringing the (literally and figuratively) scarred ape to life through motion-capture performance (keyword: performance). Moments like watching Kebbell play an intelligent ape who is pretending to be an un-intelligent ape may boggle your mind as it did mine; a film is only as good as its villain, and Kebbell makes Koba a great one. (Expectations for his role as Doctor Doom in The Fantastic Four reboot have now gone way up). At the risk of playing favorites, let it be said that there are plenty of other actors – Judy Greer, Nick Thurston, Karin Konoval, Kirk Acevedo – who also deserve credit for bringing the supporting ape and human characters to life. It’s a really solid cast all around.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an undeniable one-two punch of a winning movie; it’s the type of milestone spectacle film that is a must-see in theaters – it just so happens that it’s also one of the best (and awards-worthy) films of the year. A third installment is a must, as it (literally) looks like these Apes are only getting better (and smarter) with each new installment.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apesis now playing in theaters. It is 130 minutes long, and is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language.
Want to talk about the film without SPOILING it for others? Head over to our Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Spoiler Discussion. Want to hear the editors discuss the film? Tune in to our Dawn of the Planet of the Apes episode of the #SRUnderground Podcast.