Editor’s Note: This review first appeared in print in the Newnan Times Herald.
“Planet of the Apes,” based on a 1963 French novel by Pierre Boulle, never seems to get old. And “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a superior extension of the Apes’ universe. Unlike the thoughtful, intellectual 2011 blockbuster “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” this sequel ups the action while still retaining the emotional gravitas that marks the best cinematic epics.
Years have passed since the events in “Rise” that resulted in release of the simian flu. The virus has decimated the human race. The opening title credit sequence gives us the back story. The ensuing violence took its toll on civilization eventually chaos leaves human society a wasteland.
Meanwhile, in the wilderness outside San Francisco, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow smart apes from the lab in the previous film have started a life for themselves. With Caesar as their supreme leader, the apes have built beautiful tree houses for their growing families. We first meet Caesar and his son as their tribe hunt elk in the forest. When they are attacked by a grizzly bear, the warrior Koba (Toby Kebbell) comes violently to the rescue. The relationship between the thoughtful and troubled Caesar and the militant Koba is a complex one. While Koba loves his leader and owes his life to him, Koba does not trust Caesar’s choices mainly when they involve humans. And when a small group of humans are discovered exploring the wilderness, the conflict between Koba and Caesar begins to boil.
After the screening, my former Film Fix television host, Jeff Marker, pointed out that we had just watched a version of Shakespeare and that astute observation is spot on. Like one of the great Bard’s history plays, “Dawn” feels like it is re-telling (foretelling?) significant historical events. The tragic weight of these happenings elevates the film above the popcorn genre making it an undeniably intelligent science fiction adventure.
The cast is solid with Jason Clarke (“Lawless”) playing Malcolm, a man whose family has been ripped apart by the simian flu. He now has an awkward relationship with Ellie (Keri Russell), a former CDC doctor whose own family was taken from her as well. Their new family includes Malcolm’s sensitive teenage son. They live in the ruins of San Francisco under the military leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). But their supply of fuel is beginning to run low, and this means that the humans must venture out of the city and find a new source of power. The question is whether apes and man can find middle ground.
“Dawn” is under the direction of Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”), who knows how to make maximum use of special effects. And the thick drama on display is matched by the visuals. Everything has a rich texture making 3D a good choice. There is amazing visual depth here and that is not way limited to just the ape characters alone. The environments are heavily stylized and carefully constructed with great attention to detail. But while the images are no doubt the product of complex set construction and computer animated techniques, they look organic and real. Opening scenes where the apes travel through the forest leaping limb to limb are seamless and elegant. And wide shots of the decaying city of San Francisco feel very much like the beautiful painted backgrounds employed in the films of the 1960s and 1970s. And Caesar is nothing short of a revelation.
Andy Serkis is Caesar. Serkis is the actor who has inhabited some of the most memorable motion capture characters of the modern cinematic age–he is Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films and he played Kong in Peter Jackson’s really underrated version of “King Kong.” After transferring the emotions of the young Caesar in 2011’s “Rise,” he has possibly delivered his best performance here as the sometimes fierce and other times troubled and saddened leader ape, who may hold the fate of all of civilization in his hands. To say the effects work is great is an understatement, Caesar is wholly created and connects like few characters in recent memory. He speaks and uses sign language and he loves, and he experiences heartache. These things we feel too. It is an award-worthy performance that voters will have to recognize at the end of the year.
But as smart as the story is, “Dawn” is equally thrilling and action-packed. Next to the latest “X-Men” installment, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the summer’s best blockbuster. It’s about apes and men and finding a way to co-exist.