For all the summer blockbuster busts that 2014 has produced, it’s refreshing when a film like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is released. Set a decade after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn takes us further into the backstory of how the human race succumbed to the apes and ultimately lost the planet. Director Matt Reeves takes over the franchise and creates a smart, visually stunning, spectacle that revolves more around the apes as the central characters than the humans. Andy Serkis returns to the motion capture suit to again play the role of Caesar, the leader of the apes, whose history has lead him to both respect and fear the human race. Will Dawn be the smash hit Fox is hoping for and pave a fresh new path for further sequels in this storied franchise?
The ALZ-113 virus has crippled the human race and the remaining survivors have struggled to survive. It’s been ten years since Caesar lead the escape from ape sanctuary at Genisys, Caesar (Serkis), and his commune of apes still live in the Redwoods, away from civilization in hopes to continue to live a peaceful existence. Life is different for Caesar. Now middle-aged, he has married, he is a father to a newborn son as well as his elder son Blue Eyes (Thurston), whom is starting to come into his own in the colony. A new way of life has lead to a healthy existence with the apes, some of whom are former comrades in the escape, including former test subject Koba (Kebbell), as well as a new generation of apes learning to speak and being trained to be useful members of the colony. A far cry from the existence they once had known in the cages of humanity.
Some years have passed since the last humans have been seen in the woods, the apes begin to believe the human race has become extinct from the virus. One day, on a hunt for the colony, Caesar’s son Blue Eyes and friend Ash, came across a small party of armed survivors in the forest led by a man named Malcolm (Clarke). Startled by the site of the apes, Carver (Acevedo) shoots and wounds Ash, which brings down Caesar and the rest of the apes. Caesar decides against retaliation for the action and demands the humans leave. Shocked by what they just witnessed, the group head back into the city of San Francisco where a fairly large amount of survivors have gathered to create a new community. Greeted by Dreyfus (Oldman), the leader of the surviving humans, Malcolm tells the story of their encounter. Fearing that the humans will not heed his warning, Caesar leads the apes to the city where he tells the humans to not enter the apes’ territory ever again, a warning that does not sit well with the human survivors.
Malcolm convinces Dreyfus to give him three days to make peace with the apes to gain access to a dam in their territory, which could provide long-term power to the city. Though Caesar responds to the diplomatic pleadings of Malcolm and his medic wife, Ellie (Russell), not all the apes approve of this agreement. Koba takes it upon himself to investigate the human community in the city and see just what exactly the survivors are up to. When Koba finds the smoking gun he is looking for, he returns to persuade Caesar to change his stance regarding the humans and go to war to eradicate the survivors once and for all. As a power struggle begins to ignite, will Caesar be able to keep the peaceful existence he fought so hard to achieve or will war engulf the inhabitants of the ape colony and lead to survival of the fittest?
Director Reeves has masterfully taken a story, which has been told all too many times, and made it seem fresh and exciting. As the story begins to explore the sub context of the conflict between man and ape, the real life political overtones begin to shine through (anti-gun lobbyists will be cheering in the streets after this one). Where Rise of the Planet of the Apes focused solely on the mistakes that humans make, Dawn takes a step back and evaluates all the parties involved in this conflict and calls each out on their shortcomings. The battle between the two sides is visually stunning. Reeve’s manages to create action sequences using not only visual effects but provide set pieces equally as impressive. The camera work during the siege of San Francisco is phenomenal.
The highly underrated Jason Clarke leads the human actors. Clarke offers a sincere performance reminiscent of James Franco’s from Rise, providing an emotional connection to Serkis’ Caesar and offers a glimmer of hope that humanity still can be compassionate through adversity. Acting legend Gary Oldman, provides a truly wonderful performance as a man trying to protect those lives which have been thrust upon him. Andy Serkis is an absolute genius. A master of the motion capture suit, very few people can act under those conditions time and time again and continue to output Oscar-worthy performances. Serkis’ Caesar is an amazing achievement in acting and I truly hope the Academy finally honors Mr Serkis with a nomination this year.
Overall, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a breathtaking film that reinvigorates the Apes franchise and will have audiences wanting much, much more. July 26, 2016 is a long way away to wait for the next installment, so I’m just glad we have these two films to keep us company in the meantime.
Stars: 4 out of 5