From the visceral opening ape-hunting-deer action sequence, I was completely enthralled by DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. I enjoyed the previous instalment, Rupert Wyatt’s RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, a solid little film, but Dawn makes it look astonishingly slight and visually dated in comparison (despite being only three years old).
Ten years after the search for a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease inadvertently made apes hyper-intelligent, causing a rebellion against their humanity and the spread of a virus known as “Simian Flu” over the world, humankind is struggling to survive in makeshift communities, while the apes are thriving in their woodland home outside San Francisco. When the humans discover a valuable hydro-electric dam in ape territory, a rag-tag group led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) call a truce with ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and begin to work together for the mutual benefit of both societies, but instigators on both sides have other ideas about species preservation…
Following the aforementioned hunt, we are treated to a series of extended and undeniably brave scenes set in ape society where we are given time to really get to know our furry distant genetic cousins. They comfort each other, they debate, they show gratitude, all in sign language and grunts. It’s like watching something from another time, not only culturally, but in terms of the building blocks of film itself. There’s something wonderfully old-fashioned, almost of the Silent era about it, and it’s so refreshing to see this kind of thing in a big summer movie.
I really like Matt Reeves as a director. He’s like a more talented and less showy model of his buddy and frequent collaborator JJ Abrams. They may have both started out editing Super 8 footage for Steven Spielberg, but they’ve each grown into someone quite different. In my opinion, Abrams is a marketer, whereas Reeves is a filmmaker who actually delivers on all that he promises.
Remember the ugly chump from the last film whose facial expressions all-but said “I’m going to be a villain in the sequel”? Well he is a villain in the sequel, but Koba (Toby Kebbell) isn’t a typical one-note bad guy. He has depth and an involving character arc, and his actions, no matter how brutal, make sense. He doesn’t go bad to drive the plot, but his moral decline is a product of the plot and it reaches a point where he sees no other way to protect his species from the humans he so resents for how barbarically they treated him in captivity. In the hands of the incredibly talented young character actor Toby Kebbell (ROCKNROLLA), Koba rivals Caesar as the most compelling character in the film. Kebbell is chillingly passionate in a deeply uncomfortable, intense and affecting scene that is built around the repetition of two simple words: “human work”. If Caesar is the wisest of the apes (he even has a philosopher’s beard this time) then Koba is easily the most cunning. Just look at the ingeniously wicked way he gets around a tricky situation in the human weapons depot! His main action scene could remain the best of the year (it involves horses, machine guns, fire and a tank) and in places like this Reeves has been given space to prove himself a fluid, natural-born director of action.
The apes of course, are the result of a close and equal partnership between a crack team of animators and a talented troupe of hugely expressive actors, and the hard work all involved put in before, during, and after the shoot pays dividends when you see the final product. The whole cast that portray primates, but most notably Andy Serkis (finally given top-billing), Toby Kebbell and Nick Thurston (playing Caesar’s nervy son) have the uncanny ability to communicate not just big, broad emotions, but the tiniest momentary flicker of an idea or feeling through their performance-captured avatars.
Tangibility marks the film out from most other summer blockbusters seen over the past few years. Half of the main cast are played by actors driving motion-captured animation, but this technology was brought out on location, the performances were captured live, raw, and for real. The film’s production designers have been hard at work on ambitious, solid sets that the actors can touch, interact with and react to, and this helps no end to ground the film in reality. The quality of execution on display here, both VFX-based and practical, is peerless.
Michael Giacchino’s score cannily references Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic theme music from the original 1968 film. It’s got all of Giacchino’s usual richness and dramatic heft, but for several key moments, when we need a little extra mounting dread, the instantly recognisable, eerie plinky-plonk tones of Goldsmith’s Apes music show though to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
Reeves, a massive Apes fan, has decided to lift all the better elements from the hit-and-miss final two films of the original series, and elevates slices of CONQUEST and BATTLE to great effect. Some of the final act feels like a species-inverted take on Conquest’s uprising and we get call-backs aplenty to Caesar’s speeches from the original films, and the film’s second half that follows the uneasy truce between humans and apes gradually breaking down and eventually escalating into all-out war is a better version of the story Battle took a whole film to tell.
It might not have as many big sci-fi ideas as some of the previous Apes films, but it takes one really good idea about human (and human-like-ape) nature and runs with it, namely, no matter who you are (ape or human), where and when you live (primitive forest society or dystopian barely-surviving city) there are good people, a few bad apples and the rest of us who lie somewhere in-between. The inevitable place this story will end up, as shown in the ’68 film is all the more tragic and poignant for the knowledge that neither the apes nor the humans overcame their less enviable traits, and eventually “finally really did it” and were all damned to hell.
For all the technical wizardry and deep performances, the film does still have the cookie-cutter action movie finale featuring the main hero and villain duking it out on a tall structure, and while you don’t begrudge Serkis and Kebbel dominating in terms of screentime because of how they both own every moment, you do wish that Judy Greer as Caesar’s mate Cornelia had been given more to do, and that the human characters could prompt as much of an emotional connection as the apes do from the audience. Gary Oldman as the de-facto leader of what remains of human society has a couple of moments, but the others among the non-hairy cast make little-to-no impression.
Aside from a slight slump into conventionality and the humans once again being duller and less memorable than the riveting scenes that focus on the apes, Matt Reeves has produced a meaty, satisfying and affecting sci-fi sequel that respects, and builds on, what has come before in the franchise, whilst also carrying the story, and the visuals forward leaps and bounds. The debate about the validity of motion-captured acting will likely continue for a few years yet, but this film, and the performances of Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell is sure to bolster the pro side of the debate. SSP