Dir: Matt Reeves
Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Nick Thurston, Judy Greer, and Gary Oldman
Synopsis: A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species.
*Reviewer Note: This will be a spoiler free review.*
The Planet of the Apes franchise has gone through a lot from; ahead of its time, shocking, good, bad, weird and terrible. It has touched on political issues and questions that no one dared touched, but has also shown us how far people will go to do what they think is right. The original series came out before I was born (but I have watched and appreciated them) and then saw the horrible Tim Burton Planet of the Apes. Luckily, the series rebooted and gave us the excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes giving us not just a brand new series but giving us fresh new opportunities. Does Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continue that? Quick answer, yes. And gives us a hell of a lot more.
The movie starts off giving us a quick and eerie rundown of how mankind has been ravaged by the “Simian Flu” followed by a war that left only small modest groups of human colonies. Ten years later, Caesar (Serkis) and his apes have grown and thrived in the woods. They’ve become smarter, self-sufficient, built a home, and have a tight-knit community built on laws such as “Ape Shall Not Kill Ape” and “Apes Together Strong.” Caesar leads his community with wisdom and has also become a family ape with his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), newborn child, and son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston).
However, Caesar’s life is disrupted when Malcolm (Clarke), his wife Ellie (Russell), his son Alexandra (Smit-McPhee) and others accidentally stumble into the apes’ territory while trying to repair a dam that will supply power to their colony. Caesar must then decide if he can protect his apes through isolationism, a tenuous truce, or agreeing with his chief lieutenant Koba (Kebbell), who wants to start a war against the humans.
One of the great things about the movie is director Matt Reeves does not make us wait to see Caesar and the apes. After eerie opening, we see the apes right off the part. Matter of fact, the movie spends time more with the apes than the humans. Caesar’s people communicate through a mix of limited speech, signing, and body language. The ape children attend school, where Maurice, the orangutan from Rise and Caesar’s trusted adviser, teaches lessons like how to write and one that I stated earlier “Ape Shall Not Kill Ape.”
Although the movie has many standouts (which I will get to them later) the main standout is Andy Serkis as Caesar. This time around Caesar is older and wiser. He bears the weight of the world on his shoulders. With every body movement you can feel the responsibilities that he is wrestling with, regarding not just leading his fellow apes but also taking care of his family and guiding his elder son into adulthood. Serkis is one of the masters, if not the master, of motion capture and his turn as Caesar this time around with the help of WETA is truly one of his best works.
The dynamic between Caesar and Clarke’s Malcolm is a strong arc in the movie. The two have much in common, as Malcolm is also trying to protect his family and his people. It’s an uneasy truce that’s made between the two, but it comes from a shared understanding that they’re both working for the same thing — for family, for community, and for the future.
Of course some of the apes don’t agree with helping the humans and those are lead by Koba. While played by stunt performer Christopher Gordon in the first film, Reeves recast the role with actor Toby Kebbell. The probable reason is that Koba is a key player in the events of Dawn, and Kebbell gives Serkis a run for his money in the performance-capture acting and is much more than one-dimensional. Koba has pledged himself to Caesar ever since he freed him from the experimental laboratories of the first film, where the ape was operated on hundreds of times by human scientists. His hate for man is strong, and you can’t really blame him. He shows Caesar the scars from the human mistreatment.
The relationship between Caesar and Koba is just one of the many remarkable, textured character back and forwards of the film. Koba is given to outbursts as he questions Caesar’s approach to the humans, but when Caesar rebukes his old ally, Koba begs for forgiveness with an extended hand and a posture of supplication. Caesar embraces his friend’s hand with sympathy, accepting his apology as he understands the complexity of the situation and Koba’s misgivings. It’s a strong moment, but it becomes so much more as it’s repeated a couple of more times throughout the film, with each slight variation on the same interaction informing us greatly about how the relationship between the two is changing.
While the ape actors are great, including a string of lesser known performers including Konoval and Nick Thurston (who plays Caesar’s son Blue Eyes), we can’t overlook what WETA has done here. This movie is full of apes, and they’re very often in exterior locations or engaged in battles or riding freaking horses! All technically complex and next-level stuff. Oh, and the apes on horses? There are certain unforgettable shots on this front that make that very concept as cool and thrilling as it must’ve seemed when the original franchise came out. Reeves also utilizes the WETA magic to create some truly beautiful images. Much of this stuff gets into spoiler territory, but it truly is beautiful to see.
As for the human cast, it is hit and miss. Jason Clarke is great as always as he sees Caesar trying to basically do the same thing but under different circumstances. Clarke’s Malcolm sees the apes as more than just “animals” as Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus does. Keri Russell has her moments here and there but overall doesn’t do much and the same can more said for Smit-McPhee. Gary Oldman however is unfortunately underused in this. While he does have some strong moments he disappears for a chuck of the film and even when he returns he isn’t nearly as strong as he could have been.
Matt Reeves, who takes over for Rupert Wyatt, really expands the world that Wyatt had only developed. Rise was also filled with more obvious homage’s to the original series, Reeves holds back and makes the occasional and subtle references like using bits of the original score and an ending that is very Planet of the Apes. Although, there are some similarities of other huge moments of the original series that might be lost on the causal Planet of the Apes fans but to the hardcore fans – or ones that binged watched the series before watching Dawn – those will stick out.
Ultimately, the great Planet of the Apes movies all share one very important element: a willingness to examine and contemplate the issues facing the real world. And Dawn certainly falls into this category. While the always-relevant notions of family, friendship, and the responsibility to protect both run deep in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, there is much more here as well for those who are willing to look. I won’t say what they are here just in case you want to see them unfold in the film yourself but all of these concepts are left to ponder.
All in all, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does what the best of Hollywood genre movies can do — it’s exciting, thrilling, and visually amazing to look at. But it’s so much more than that as well. Reeves is a great addition and arguably has made a better movie than Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But this movie belongs to Serkis and Kebbell who give amazing performances, and all through motion capture.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
5 out of 5