Nutshell: I’d give Dawn of the Planet of the Apes an A-. The CGI is jaw-droppingly perfect, the story feels like a natural progression from Rise, and Serkis gives Caesar the world-weariness of a true leader. I’d have liked more shades of grey in these black-or-white characters, but otherwise Dawn is a harsh critique of our world and how we live in it. Suck on that, SciFi haters.
You damn dirty…human? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (which to me sounds like Dawn of the Sequel of the Planet of the Apes Franchise Series Of Everything, so let’s just say Dawn from here on out, ‘kay?) takes Rise of the Planet of the Apes and doubles-down on our world’s love of destroying that which scares us, bringing the story to a climax that will most definitely be played out in future films (there’s already an unnamed sequel scheduled for 2016, FYI.)
It’s been 10 years since Caesar claimed his freedom and the drug ALZ-113 spread through the world, killing most of the human race. Groups of humans band together, and in Muir Woods the evolved apes — lead by Caesar — are multiplying. It’s only a matter of time until they meet…oh hey; there’s a dam that could bring electricity to a group humans living in San Francisco. It’s deep in Muir Woods. I’m sure an idiot human won’t freak out and shoot an ape out of sheer terror and a gigantic superiority complex. Oops.
After that happens, Caesar is obviously ticked off, and heads to the human compound to tell them to stay the [Radio Edit] away. Humans being humans — but we need something, so not listening! — they send Requisite Good Humans (and a Human Douche) to parlay with Caesar. Meanwhile, Koba (the horribly tortured lab chimp from Rise) ain’t havin’ any of this human lurve nonsense, and will do just about anything to stop a possible peace between their cultures. Wait, did I say “just about anything”? I meant anything and everything y’all. Koba is the Requisite Batshit Ape, who balances out Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, the Requisite Stubborn Human who’s the leader of the San Fran humans. A batshit ape, a stubborn human…I’m sure everyone will work out their differences and live in harmony for ever and evah. Sike!
Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) and Keri Russell (The Americans) play the requisite Good Humans, and Kirk Acevedo (The Walking Dead) plays the requisite Human Douche. They’re good, but this is Caesar’s story; all other characters take second fiddle. It’s not that they’re not fleshed out, but rather in the sweeping scope of this film the details of their lives are lost. But be on the lookout for a comic book nerdgasm: Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Alexander gives a copy of Black Hole to teacher ape/Orangutan Maurice. Holy parallels, Batman!
Is it a good time at the movies? Yes and no. Dawn is a thinking-fan’s film; one that is best seen, and then discussed over a few beers (or sodas, fine) immediately after. Dawn is an incredibly ambitious film that succeeds in using the preceding film as a stepping stone to a more fully realized world. It’s look at how humans — and evolved apes — react to threats and let their fears shape their response is equal parts horrible, heartbreaking and brutally realistic. As humans and apes gear up to “protect their way of life” (read: destroy what scares them), it’s easy to draw unsettling real-world parallels. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) doesn’t hit you over the head with “We’re The Same!!11!!” statements, but lets viewers draw their own conclusions from the storyline and his character’s behavior.
My beef with this film is that there’s no character development. The Good Apes & Good Humans are always good, and the Bad Apes and Bad Humans are always driven by fear, loathing and the inability to change. A bit of gray-shading would have been nice. But with a film that runs at over 2 hours (and feels like three), tacking on a few extra scenes could have bloated the film, and probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference, as we all know who’s gonna come out on top in this series. Still, a character or two — perhaps Oldman’s Dreyfus? — wrestling with the decision to do or do not would have given this film a bit more balance. And though I realize that with no power there’s no social media, but the humans have no idea how large the evolved ape population is? And after TEN YEARS they have no interest whatsoever in trying to figure out how to live without electricity? Sigh. Humanity. Gotta love us.
Reeves does everything else right though. There’s FUBARs on both sides, with good guys and bad guys among humans and apes. Weta Digital has brought their A+ game, and cinematographer Michael Seresin’s visuals are crystal clear, even in 3D. The opening credits scene feels like Exposition Fairy by way of Plague Inc., and it gives viewers enough backstory — and what’s-happened-since story — so they can jump in even if they haven’t seen the first film. (But do see the first film. It’ll make scenes later in the film even more powerful.)
Like so many reboots, re-imaginings and docu-dramas, it’s not the destination that counts (let’s face it, aren’t we all waiting for humans to devolve in this series?) but how we get there. Luckily, in a Rolling Stone interview Reeves says he’s interested in “how did we get there and how did that happen?” That gives me hope that the next film will be as mesmerizing as this one was.
And best of all, in Dawn Andy Serkis gets top billing in the end credits. As is just and right.