By Jessica Delfanti | July 11, 2014
Director: Matt Reeves
Writers: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Pierre Boulle (Novel La Planète Des Singes)
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer
When considering Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s probably best to remember: the conceit here involves newly-sentient apes shooting guns and living in Muir Woods. Walking into the theater with expectations of, well, anything would be a mistake. And if you can sit through the film without falling victim to its ho-hum of “serious moral issues” and take it at face value–literally, its poster has a chimp riding a horse and holding a machine gun–you’ll find the experience fun and ridiculous. As it should be.
Coming from Cloverfield director Reeve and writers from Rise of the Planet of the Apes Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, Dawn feels like a recipe for a successful summer movie. At its surface level, it has all the right elements: a distinctly generic and white lead (Jason Clarke), a mostly useless but nice to look at female sidekick (Keri Russell), explosions–so many explosions!–and the currently favored trope: a modern city ruined by an X Factor.
Now, the X Factor at hand happens to be a range of Apes that are “peacefully” living in the woods of Northern California and have a distinct distaste for humans. At this point, most of the human population has been killed by the “Simian Flu” introduced in Rise, and the Apes live under the guidance of Patient Zero Ape Caesar (Andy Serkis). Caesar’s rule comes into question when the White Lead and Female Sidekick arrive in the woods looking for a way to power their human colony in San Francisco. While Caesar permits the “Human Work,” perhaps in nostalgia for days of James Franco past, the menacing Koba (Toby Kebbell) who met Caesar in an abusive testing facility, is less willing to accept the “Human Work” that once left him with physical, visible scars.
If you can’t tell from the description of the plot, the film centers primarily on the conflict within the Ape society, and that’s where it gets…flat. Dawn shows us that, even with technology developed to this point, even with motion capture performers as talented as Serkis and Kebbell, a scene that is completely CG just feels empty. Serkis, who recently ignited controversy when he dismissed animation as “painting digital makeup onto actors’ performances” still can’t seem to “singlehandedly” deliver a leading character strong enough to hold our attention. Even Kebbell’s Koba, with a truly fantastic character design that manages to differentiate him from the sea of other apes, feels dull when compared with the actual human actors. And, I’m sorry to say, there’s just never going to be a point where these weird CG apes talking doesn’t seem stupid.
Perhaps complaining about too much screen-time being given to apes in a film called Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is silly. And there are certainly some attributes that are fun. A climactic battle scene where Koba rides a horse and dual-wields machine guns while cackling wildly is sure to make a popular gif. Some interactions between the White Lead’s son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and an orangutan engender emotion that calls to mind the delight of watching a documentary about apes and their incredible learning abilities. There are glimmers of humor and snippets of excitement that make the film certainly watchable, if never intellectually stimulating or overly interesting. But, hey, isn’t that what America wants in a summer movie? Our filmmakers certainly seem to think so.