Genre: Action, Drama, Sci-Fi
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Over 50 years after the original novel, who’d have thought Pierre Boulle’s planet of civilised primates would still hold such appeal. Fading in and out of vogue since publication in 1963, it was Charlton Heston and his dislike of simian paws that exploded the concept into public consciousness in 1968. The appeal dipped over the years and Tim Burton’s 2001 reimagining failed to relight the touchpaper. Then out of nowhere Rupert Wyatt gave us Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011 and we loved them again. With star James Franco and Wyatt departed, Matt Reeves steps behind the camera for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to deliver an intelligent and character driven blockbuster that surpasses its already impressive predecessor.
Picking up where Rise left off, the opening graphics show the spread of the virus, referred to as simian flu, across the world. With a high fatality rate, human society as we know it has collapsed, the survivors turning on one another. Meanwhile, in the forest north of San Francisco, Caesar (Andy Serkis) has been painstakingly building his primate society; one based on trust, togetherness and strict prohibitions on violence between apes. With humans absent for years, they begin to speculate that the once mighty species that ruled over them is no more.
That’s until Malcolm (Jason Clarke) arrives leading a small group including his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and second wife Ellie (Keri Russell). They come from a larger group in the burnt out city looking to use an old dam to restore power. Despite Caesar and Malcolm’s efforts, they can’t overcome the pent up animosity that leads human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), and the aggressive test subject and Caesar’s second in command Koba (Toby Kebbell) into a battle that undoes the best intentions.
After all, these apes are human creations blessed with the flaws and virtues that undid their former masters. Eschewing the mindless wham-bam pyrotechnics that scar the majority of its summer rivals, Reeves’ film capitalises on a strong screenplay from Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, focussing on the doomed efforts to find accord and the personalities that both strive towards and strive to undermine it. Just like in our own, this future world finds trust to be a sacred yet fragile goal.
Reeves’ decision to unfold the story slowly heightens the impact allowing Caesar’s world and its inhabitants to take shape. The nature of it is revealed gradually. Their hopes and fears become all the more tangible as the personalities that form their society come to the fore. Caesar is perhaps the only one who ever saw the good in humanity but he has loyalists like Rocket (Terry Notary) and the literary Orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) who will follow his lead. Others like Koba and Caesar’s own son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) find his willingness to treat with Malcolm foolish.
This emphasis on the ape civilisation is Dawn’s greatest asset but it does come at the cost of the human side of the argument. Aside from Malcolm, humanity is largely cast aside. The rest of them are little more than stock characters locked inside narrowly defined roles. Even those around Malcolm have little to do beyond giving him a reason to forge ahead. His son indulges in good natured bonding with Maurice while poor Ellie is really just a mobile medical station and occasional talking board for Malcolm. Of the rest, Oldman gets little to play with and the only other figures granted screen time are belligerent macho cut-outs.
The strength of Caesar’s world and the weight given to the decisions its inhabitants must make more than paper over this though, and when the time comes to step it up a gear, Reeves’ delivers confidently. With a budget heading towards the $200m mark, he demonstrates just where it’s gone in a tautly constructed third act that sees Koba take things into his own paws by leading the apes on a full scale assault at the human settlement. A dizzyingly orchestrated charge straight down the middle of the street sees the gradual escalation of force until rockets and tanks are brought into play. This is then topped again in a tense climactic showdown atop a partially constructed skyscraper.
Of course, wanton destruction only accounts for part of that monster budget. The real marvel is the CGI that renders a whole civilisation of primate species in convincing detail. The facial expressions and body language impress but it’s the fluidity of motion as they swing through trees and bound over hastily erected fortifications that really stand out. It just goes to show that it’s not only fireballs that can catch the eye.
It’s rare that a sequel manages to improve on its predecessor. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does this in spades using special effects to complement thoughtful and well-balanced storytelling rather than lead it. Any doubts about bringing back the apes have been firmly put to bed. The only question remaining is can they somehow manage to raise the bar again for the third outing?