Brace yourselves. A bunch of apes are the most interesting characters you are going to see at the movies this summer.
Starting its story at least a decade after the events of the first film, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a superb sequel that is both thought-provoking and entertaining, which is not something often said about a summer blockbuster. The film begins with a clever graphic of the map of the world with news footage mixed in (there’s a clever use of Obama and Michael Bloomberg clips). It becomes clear that the virus that was hinted at the end of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes has wiped out the human population. Since their battle on the Golden Gate bridge, the apes have created their own civilization in the forest with no humans in sight. The first real shot of the film is a powerful closeup of Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) eyes. It’s made even more impactful by the fact that the film closes on the same closeup.
Even though James Franco‘s character Will Rodman is not present in this film (outside of brief video footage), the relationship he created with Caesar resonates strongly here. It drives Caesar’s perception of humans. A perception that is not shared by all the other apes. The apes don’t even know if any humans survived the plague, so they are shocked when they stumble across a group of humans wandering through the forest. The meeting doesn’t go well, and it creates a tense relationship between the two species that continues for every scene of the movie. Every moment hinges on this very fragile trust and it keeps you on the edge of your seat.
The humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), have created a colony for the survivors in the city of San Francisco, but they are running out of power. Their only hope is a dam in the forest, but after their meeting gone wrong, the apes refuse to let them return. So begins the different strategies to deal with the situation. Malcolm and Caesar eventually come to an understanding and are willing to work towards a peaceful resolve, but on each side, there’s a character that’s ready to fight. The humans have Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, who is the go-to guy for remakes of franchise flicks) and the apes have Koba (Toby Kebbell). Both have an inherent distrust in the other species and don’t want to be caught as the one who didn’t strike first.
It’s fascinating to watch these dynamics play out, and the film has some interesting things to say about the conflict of war. It all leads to a single shot that changes everything.
Director Matt Reeves, who directed the excellent Cloverfield, controls this film with such ease and is even able to stage a few “look at this awesome shot” moments that would make Steven Spielberg crowd, including a tracking shot of Malcolm moving through a building with meds in tow and another when Koba takes control of a military tank as it spins around in the middle of the chaos.
He’s got an incredible leading man in Serkis, who has mastered motion-capture performances after playing Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings series and Kong in the King Kong remake. He’s actually able to speak a little bit here, but it’s still all about his facial expressions. He manages to create a multi-layered, fascinating, and charismatic character under all those visual effects. It’s pretty incredible. Are you paying attention, Oscar?
The human characters leave a little to be desired, particularly Keri Russell‘s character, Ellie, a CDC worker who gets stuck on the sideline too much. With lots of female characters kicking butt in action flicks this year (Emily Blunt, Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence, Angelina Jolie), you wish she got a little more to do. But it’s not really a negative on the film. This movie is all about the apes and the cast and crew (including composer Michael Giacchino‘s awesome score) have created a wonderful film where they truly rule.