A film review by Craig J. Koban July 18, 2014

 Rank: #8



2014, PG-13, 130 mins.


Andy Serkis as Caesar  /  Jason Clarke as Malcolm  /  Gary Oldman as Dreyfus  /  Keri Russell as Ellie  /  Toby Kebbell as Koba  /  Kodi Smit-McPhee as Alexander  /  Kirk Acevedo as Carver  /  Judy Greer as Cornelia  /  

Directed by Matt Reeves  /  Written by Scott Z. Burns, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver


2011’s RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES had the unenviable and thankless task of rebooting one of the most iconic film franchises in motion picture history, especially coming in the wake of Tim Burton’s decidedly so-so 2001 retrofitted effort.  Amazingly, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was a rather effective re-imagining of the origins of the man versus damn, dirty, talking ape genre, which combined cutting edge visual effects and empowered storytelling to leave a refreshingly lasting impression.  

Now comes DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the sequel to RISE – and the eighth PLANET OF THE APES film since the franchise began in 1968 – and it not only successfully carries forward the great elements of its antecedent, but also propels the story forward in provocative new directions.  

It also just might be the finest cinematic APES film yet. 

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES introduced us to Caesar (in a virtuoso motion capture performance of startling nuance by Andy Serkis, returning in DAWN), the San Franciscan chimp raised by a kindly research scientist that possessed mental faculties far beyond normal simians.  By the end of the film – and after being encaged with his ape brethren for far too long - Caesar emerged from being an adorable pet to a fully realized militant resistance fighter, staging a massive revolt against humanity.  DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES takes us 10 years into the future as Caesar has become the de facto leader of his species.  They all live in the Muir Woods north of San Francisco, where they have developed a remarkably sophisticated culture and society (many can read and write, whereas some, including Caesar and a few of his underlings, can speak). 



As for the humans?  Caesar and his clan have developed a deep seeded distrust of mankind, which is one of the reasons for them living in solitude away from them for a decade.  Humanity has been driven to the brink of extinction via a killer “simian virus” that was spawned by research on the apes themselves.  Nevertheless, the last pockets of humanity detest the apes as much as they detest humans, which have kept them both at a rather large distance.  A small band of San Francisco dwellers, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), struggle to survive and restore electrical power to what remains of their city.  In order for them to fully restore power, the humans must travel into the Ape populated woods.  Predictably, apes and humans do indeed have an initial hostile confrontation, but Malcolm is a cool headed pacifist that feels that nurturing relations with Caesar and his apes can be reached.  Dreyfus, on the other hand, has an itchy trigger finger for wanting to wage war and eradicate the apes.   One of Caesar’s most loyal followers, Koba (Toby Kebbell), is arguably no better than Dreyfus, and seems hell bent of doing just about anything to eliminate humans once and for all…even if it means betraying his beloved leader.  War seems painfully inevitable.   

Director Matt Reeves (CLOVERFIELD and the underrated LET ME IN) has replaced RISE’s Rupert Wyatt to helm this sequel, and it’s immediate how much stock Reeves places in establishing mood and atmosphere first well before throwing mindless action and spectacle on the screen, something that far too many summer tentpole films conspire to do.  Rather wisely, we don’t see any human characters until the first act of the film is well under way, which allows audiences to soak of the marvelously envisioned ape society on display.  This also creates a sensation of impending dread and unease, seeing as the film builds a slow-burn level of tension towards the first human/ape standoff.  Considering that the ape society here is largely mute and communicates with sign language (for the most part), Reeves is able to fully develop his ape personas with as much depth and feeling as any human. 

What’s even more remarkable is that the apes are, after all, the product of computer generated fakery.  Alas, there are real flesh and blood performances underneath all of the CGI makeup that are fully conveyed and realized.  Caesar himself remains a bravura cinematic creation, and for as meticulously detailed and rendered as he was in the first film, this sequel’s iteration of the character reaches new pioneering levels of filmmaking technical art.  Caesar and his companions are the most breathtakingly authentic motion captured characters I’ve ever witnessed, and Reeves and his visual effects artisans have reached new upper echelons of their craft in conveying the sense that we are eavesdropping on real creatures, not pixelized ones.  This is also assisted by the fact that Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin shot the film in real tangible locations (the forests of Vancouver, making a more than passable substitute for Californian forests) that helps add a layer of veracity to this effects heavy work.   

It’s easy to overlook, though, the colossal performance achievement behind the awe-inspiring ape effects.  For as incredible as the apes are rendered, it’s really Andy Serkis – and a squadron of dedicated motion caption performers – that truly bring out the personalities of these characters.  It’s through Serkis that Caesar becomes the true emotional focal point of the film, and we see him progress from the idealistic rebel warrior in the first film to a more grounded, contemplative, and guarded sage-like leader/protector of his family and people.  It’s only foreseeable, perhaps, that the human characters take a back seat to their ape counterparts, but DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES stocks itself with strong character actors like Clarke and Oldman to give the film a finer human interest slant than the previous entry.  The pair make for an effective character foil to one another, seeing as Malcolm strives to forge ties with the apes and Dreyfus only wishes for their demise.  Dreyfus isn't as much of a one-dimensional sadist as he would have been in a lesser film; his actions perpetrated versus the apes are born more out of uncertain and fear than pure maliciousness.  He occupies one of the film’s more tender moments when he tearfully reacts to his iPad turning back on – after power has been restored – revealing pictures of his loved ones long since dead. 

Like great memorable examples of sci-fi, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is more intriguingly idea and theme-centric than it is an action film.  There’s a wit and sophistication to the storytelling here that matches and compliments its astonishing effects.  The film not only finds inspiration in the themes of disparaging racial discrimination that can be felt as far back in the original apes films, but it also has ample things to say about the nature of gun violence beyond its core message of humanity's inability to coexist with ape civilization.  Dreyfus’s clan stockpiles weapons in preparation for war, whereas Caesar believes in the nobility of peace, diplomacy, and law.  Yet, when Koba’s semi-irrational, semi-justified hatred of mankind gets the better of him, he too becomes the same kind gun loving, shoot first, ask questions later malevolent force that typifies Dreyfus.  Earlier apes films went out of their way to paint humans as the black and white antagonists; in this film it's far more rewardingly and fascinatingly opaque.   

Of course, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES culminates with a violent hell and brimstone battle between militant apes and militant humans, but it surprisingly ends less with jubilant victory than it does with wounded melancholy on both sides as to what’s to come (it also brilliantly sets up future installments).  I was stunned by how much I enjoyed RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, but I’m even more elated by how DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a much richer, more thoughtful, more visually stunning, and more emotionally resonant follow-up entry.  It unequivocally proves that the science fiction genre is far from dead and still – in an age populated by summer films of sound and fury signifying nothing – can marry eye-popping visual effects, dynamically confident performances, assured storytelling, and involving themes that speak towards present day woes.  Considering the apocalyptic bleakness on display here, this franchise has a resoundingly bright future ahead.

  H O M E