By Matthew McKibben | 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
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the best movie of the summer and should be considered for major awards come award season. It’s expertly written, directed, acted, scored, edited, and filmed and is the best genre film since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and James Cameron’s Avatar.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes starts off with a credit sequence showing us all that’s happened in the 10 years since the first movie. Humanity is all but extinct, wiped out by the simian flu unleashed in Rise of the Planet of the Apes; the time of the simians as the dominant species is upon us. The movie opens with a war-painted Caesar (once again played by the motion cap wizard Andy Serkis) and his band of merry apes hunting wild elk in the darkened forests of Northern California (filmed in both Northern California and Vancouver). As the hunt continues and as they end up back at their fort, we’re shown that the apes are doing just fine sans humanity and have started rudimentary schools and divisions of labor (sadly, female apes are still relegated to gender stratified work). The movie drops us in to a fully realized society and doesn’t spend a lot of time spoon-feeding us what we’re seeing. It’s refreshing seeing a movie that trusts our intelligence for a change.
I said above that humanity is all but extinct, but it’s not quite there yet. Although it’s been years since Caesar and crew have seen a human, we meet a small group of survivors searching for a damaged dam that they hope to repair. Humans existed for tens of thousands of years sans electricity and survived just fine; now they inexplicably need it, or else they might wipe each other out. Humanity has had a rough go of the ten years since the Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The humans who weren’t wiped out by the “simian flu” have battled with one another for years; if Gary Oldman can’t power up his iPad with sweet, sweet electricity soon, the human leaders, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) fear that the loss of hope will lead to more in-fighting and ultimately, the end of humanity.
It’s while this crew is searching for the dam that they stumble upon two apes and injure one in a panicked shooting. The injured ape is the son of Koba (Toby Kebbell), a loyal yet fire breathing (not literally, but that’d be dope as Hell) ape who we met in the first movie and came to learn had undergone all kinds of brutal animal testing at the hands of the humans. Koba wants blood, both for his son and for the trauma inflicted on him that he felt was never avenged. Caesar is a wise leader born of two worlds, one simian and one human, so he knows he has to use every ounce of his more human political skills to negotiate with the apes who are eager to wipe out the last remnants of humanity.
If there’s one thing most summer movies need more of, it’s the very real human (or in this case, simian) flaws leading to big, broad tragedy. The X-Men movies have it (with Magneto’s roots in the concentration camp) and the Star Wars movies had it (done poorly with Anakin’s story, done expertly with Luke’s), but so few movies rely on the flaws of the characters in them to drive the narrative. Since we’re in the Cape Era, it’s usually a matter of an outside force coming down from above and the hero making the choice to fight said force. But the summer movies that really speak to me are ones in which the flaws of the characters create the conflict, bind them to the conflict, and then ultimately save or doom the protagonist in the end.
In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, each of the main characters, both human and ape alike, are written in such a way that you feel empathy for their actions and can see how in similar circumstances, you would have made similar choices. There are no true villains in this story. Even Carver (Kirk Acevedo), the trigger happy guy who injured Kobo’s son and has open hostility for the apes, has a justification for what he’s doing. He’s bad and pretty vile, but you can kind of see where he’s coming from, too. Seeing your family wiped out by “monkey flu” and then having to survive without electricity will do that to a fella.
Andy Serkis’s Caesar is a revelation and should be, in an idealized world, eligible for major acting awards. He’s able to, with the help of insanely talented CGI artists, give a performance that is filled with nuance and subtlety. The key to all great acting is being able to show internal conflict and they succeed in ways that exceeded my expectations set by the first movie.
Beyond the acting and CGI wizardry involved in rendering his performance, Caesar is expertly written and is a fully formed, 3-dimensional, and flawed character. He’s the most wise of all his fellow apes, yet he knows he’s in over his head. He understands that the intelligence gifted to him in the first movie comes with a political price. He knows that the more animalistic side of him wants to side with the apes who want to wipe out the rest of humanity, yet his experiences with humans as loving and caring beings gives him pause in doing so. The first shot of the movie is a close up on that animalistic side of Caesar as he’s covered in war paint, leading a hunt. Yet the last shot of the movie is also of Caesar’s eyes, showing him fully at one with his animal and human side. He’s a character that spends the entirety of the movie weighing his decisions and options, and in doing so, shows how great leaders are born and created.
But all tragedies come with a price. Because these movies are called Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we know that ultimately the apes will be victorious at some point. But you don’t go from human extinction to Heston wailing at the blown up Statue of Liberty without a little bloodshed on both sides. And because of the flaws of each character, events are set in motion that will, no doubt, result in a bloody third movie, which is hinted at in this movie. Caesar was tested and apes (and humans) died, but things could and will get worse before they get better… for the apes, that is. Sorry, humanity. We’re doomed.
The human cast is given a lot more dimension than the humans in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In Rise, they were mostly lazily written caricatures of actual people. Oh look, there’s the evil corporatist pharmaceutical CEO. Oh look, there’s Brian Cox as the maniacal owner of a chimpanzee refuge. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the characters are easy to relate to. I kept expecting Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus to take a turn to mustache twirling villain mode, but they never quite get there…thankfully.
While I enjoyed and appreciated James Franco’s work in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Kodi Smit-McPhee all gave good performances and had moments where they could really sink their teeth into a scene. After his turn in this and The Road can we get Kodi Smit-McPhee in something not set at the end of the world?
After his work directing Cloverfield, Let Me In, and now this, it’s time to consider putting Matt Reeves on the short list of directors who you get excited for once you find out they’re directing something. With JJ Abrams directing Star Wars Episode VII, and Rian Johnson set to direct Episode XIII, I’d like to see what Reeves can do with Episode IX. But I digress… His work here is really quite great. He gives the movie a distinct texture and feel, and frames individual shots in interesting and unique ways. There’s a shot in this movie where Koba has overtaken a gun turret on a tank, and as the turret rotates, you see mass chaos going on around him. It’s one of the most interesting individual shots I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time, summer movie or not.
I keep harping on it, but if anyone should be a shoo-in for awards nominations, it should be cinematographer Michael Seresin (Midnight Express, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). Simply put, movies don’t look like this any more. This movie has a texture and visual style to it that, I think, puts it side by side with classic movies from any decade.
Famed film composer Michael Giacchino provided the score and it’s one of the best works he’s done since his work LOST or his work on his academy award winning score for Pixar’s Up.
The effects work deserves mentioning here. This special effects work is truly special. I have absolutely no idea what was done with actual chimps and what was done with CGI. And the fact that I don’t know should tell you all you need to know about the level of craftspersonship involved here. This is one of those movies where the effects work is so strong, you’ll spend a fair amount of time doing mental debates in your head between what’s real and what’s not.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the best sci-fi movies of the past decade and is a work that will stand the test of time. There are layers to this movie that will only get peeled and examined with repeated viewings. For example, there are strong political undertones involving gun use and gun control that I didn’t even touch on in this review, but are super obvious in this movie. But that’s a shouting match better served for a different time and place.
I don’t like talking about movie rankings but I’ll do so here. I’m giving this movie a 9.5 out of 10. For me, that .5 that keeps it from being a full on 10 is that I don’t know that I love this movie on the cellular movie in the way that I do other 10 rated movies (Empire Strikes Back, E.T., The Dark Knight, etc.) I just don’t have a love for the Planet of the Apes movies in the way I do for Superman or Batman or Luke Skywalker. But on a craftspersonship level, this movie very much is a 10.