Apes gear up for War
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the 2014 sequel to 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes with Andy Serkis returning to reprise his role as Caesar. Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman star, and Toby Kebbell also stars in a motion capture role. Matt Reeves serves as director. The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects.
Having a movie sequel improve upon its predecessor is a special non-award accomplishment that is usually hard to do. Now add on the challenge of releasing said sequel in the midst of the fiery summer, the time of year in which it's open season for studios to release their big blockbuster tentpole films. Unless that sequel also happens to be one of those tentpoles, it's probably next to near impossible for that film to be successful, right?
Well, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes proves this wrong. Dead wrong. If anything else that Dawn proves, it's that you can very much release a film dead center in the summer that which not only delivers thrilling action, but also memorable characters and emotional heft. And yet, on the surface, Dawn very much looks as if it's a straight-on popcorn action flick. It's not. Not at all. Hell, I wouldn't hesitate to categorize it as a sci-fi drama, one which just happens to have some neat action sequences in it.
Ten years after the events of Rise, the human population has been ravaged by the ALZ-113 virus or better known as the Simian flu. Apes, who have enhanced intelligence because of the same virus, have begun to develop their own society. Caesar, the central ape from Rise, now leads an ape colony in the Muir Woods just outside of San Francisco. The colony is primitive, but highly functional. Caesar has a son named Blue Eyes who is friends with another ape named Ash. Blue Eyes and Ash encounter humans in the woods one day which sends the ape colony into a frenzy since the apes have had no contact with humans for years. It turns out that the group of humans, led by the friendly Malcolm (Jason Clarke), are looking to access a dam that lies within the apes territory in hopes of using it to power the nearby human territory. Caesar is conflicted about trusting Malcolm and his group, and he also begins to develop tension with his second-in-command, the human-loathing bonobo Koba (Toby Kebbell). Koba despises humans for the way they treated him while he was still a test subject at Gen-Sys, and he attempts to pressure Caesar into launching an all-out attack on the human survivors.
So as the story suggests, the state of affairs between the humans and the apes is one in which one false move will result in all-out war. It's just a matter of who's going to lose their cool first. Caesar makes an effort to prevent war from breaking out, fearing for the safety of the apes and that, deep down, he knows that not all humans are bad. Caesar's mind frame collides with the aggressive and hateful desires of Koba, which mirrors that of the relationship between Malcolm and the human group leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Dreyfus refuses to think that the apes are more than just savage animals, but Malcolm comes to understand that the apes have much of the same desires and wants that the humans do since he sees and speaks with them first-hand.
- The lack of action sequences. No, really, this is a high point. It would be way too easy for this movie to collapse into a humans vs. apes shoot-em-up. It does eventually reach a point where some fighting is inevitable, and it is very exciting when it actually happens. That's mainly because we care about the characters (well, ape characters I mean) that are involved. Dawn spends its first half delving into Caesar's struggles of keeping the apes in line when they discover that humans are close by is where the film finds a lot of its emotional and dramatic appeal, and this is what Matt Reeves wants to focus on and maximize. More exposure into Caesar's psychology and how he handles being the ape leader is stuff that is much more interesting to watch than endlessly watching apes shoot guns and kill humans.
- Andy Serkis shines once again as Caesar, but I don't feel the need to repeat a lot of what I said in my Rise review. What else can I say? Serkis is simply fantastic in motion capture roles.
- The apes and their troubles are easily the best part of the film. But at the cost of having full-bodied ape characters, the human characters are plucked straight out of the vanilla human stockpile. Malcolm is the typical good guy who cares to do what is right. His wife, Ellie (Keri Russell), is good with medicine. Malcolm's son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), likes to draw. That's about all we get for each of those characters. But you must ask yourself, "Did I come to see the apes or am I here for just the humans?"
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not a straight-up action film, because it dedicates much of its 130 minutes into further exploring the emotional resonance and motivations of its ape, and sometimes human, characters. It transcends beyond what it appears to be about on the surface: a consistently violent precursor to a penultimate war between man and ape. Dawn does have action, but the action and violence stem from its character drama, and that's why the action is all the better. Believe me when I say that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the best summer films of the 2010s, and a film that I would easily consider to be an all-time favorite of mine. I have no doubts that War for the Planet of the Apes will be just as good, if not better.
Recommend? Absolutely, but be sure to watch Rise of the Planet of the Apes first.
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