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Dawn of the
Planet of the Apes

This time back in the summer of 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was less than a month away. The trailer looked intriguing, but James Franco and an overall ad nauseam sensation for remakes made us apprehensive. Everyone was still trying to shake off the memory of that Tim Burton debacle that had come out ten years prior. No one predicted what happened. 20th Century Fox wound up delivering a surprise summer hit with it, impressing us with a story with had a brain, engaging characters and phenomenal visual effects. – a rare combination for a summer blockbuster.

The next chapter, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, runs with that approach, surprising us again in new ways, offering a deep and nuanced examination of two species navigating how best to evolve.

At the very end of Rise, a lethal virus had gone global, beginning a path of decimation for humankind. If that’s all a little hazy for you, the opening credits of director Matt Reeve’s sequel encapsulates the tragic aftermath via newsreels, in order to catch us up to speed and set the tone for this near-future Earth.

The location is still San Francisco (albeit it a barren and dilapidated one) and the outlying dense forests of Muir Woods, which is now home to a flourishing ape community led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), the wise and respected chimp who liberated so many of his brethren in the last film. He is now surrounded by thousands of his kind – ranging from the scarred bonobo, Koba (Toby Kebbell), who serves as Caesar’s lieutenant, to the patient orangutan sage, Maurice (Kristin Konoval) – in an impressive city carved out of rocks and trees where everyone has a function.

Built on simple yet pertinent laws like “Apes Shall Not Kill Apes” and “Apes Together Stay Strong”, these apes communicate using sign language and broken English, which was undoubtedly passed on to them by Caesar. He’s responsible for their tumultuous past, their thriving present and their uncertain future.

Such responsibility weighs heavily on Caesar though, who longs for unity. There’s not just his race to consider, but also his petulant young son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), his wife, Cornelia (Judy Greer) and a newborn son to take care of.

Every leader needs someone to confide in and Maurice is a great source of encouragement to Caesar. The two sit overlooking their home with a view of the Golden Gate bridge on the horizon. Maurice knows Caesar is thinking about the humans and wonders if there really is none left, after all, it’s been ten winters since they last saw any of them. With cautious eyes, Caesar admits he’s not sure, but it’s clear he doesn’t think the humans have wiped each other out.

There is indeed a surviving group of humans living in a guarded compound in the Bay Area. It seems they’ve developed an immunity to the Simian Flu that plagued their kind and managed to make ends meet under the leadership of a cautious man named Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman) and the peacekeeping Malcolm (Jason Clarke). But they’re in need of a new power source if they have any shot at a viable future and one possible option is the energy-producing dam up in the woods.

Malcolm leads a small group consisting of his wife, Ellie (an underused Kerri Russell) and his teenage son from a previous marriage, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a couple other guys, including Carver (Kirk Acevedo) a trigger-happy engineer who used to work at the dam.

Inevitably, an encounter between a couple strolling chimps and Malcolm’s gun-totting crew, results in escalated fear, panic and a wounded young ape. This is where the world changes for both species. There’s no turning back now. Each race knows the other exists and now a sense of heightened concern and paranoia kicks in on both sides.

Here’s where Dawn gets really interesting. Up until now Reeves and his screenwriters, Mark Bomback and Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (the husband and wife duo who penned Rise and serve as co-producers on both) have smartly invested predominately silent screen time solely to the apes.

We’re immersed in their environment (let’s face it – it’s much more interesting than seeing how the humans have survived) and we’re reminded what incredible mo-cap and animation work is on display here. Honestly, I could’ve easily just watched a subtitled human-free ape movie with all these fascinating characters.

But the humans have increased the stakes. When word gets back to Dreyfuss, he immediately sees the apes as a threat, as animals who were supposedly responsible for the death of millions of humans. He didn’t stand in the majestic presence of Caesar like Malcolm did. He didn’t see that this chimp was certainly more than an animal. He just knows that he has a stockpile of weapons to protect themselves and if it comes down to it, he will kill off every last ape to see mankind thrive. It’s an understandable stance but so is the path of open communication and peace which Malcolm strives for.

Koba has a response similar to Dreyfuss. It wasn’t that long ago he was subjected to various lab tests and beaten by humans. He knows all too well what they’re capable of. It’s understandable why he feels the need to strike now, while the unprepared humans underestimate them.

Caesar only sees a rising death toll, the end of peace and the destruction of all they’ve built. He knows something must be done though, just not a spark that lead to war.

In one of many memorable scenes that will be burned into our summer moviegoing pysche, Caesar marches into San Francisco on horseback backed by seemingly thousands of apes, right up to the human’s front door. It’s quite an intimidating sight to behold. In front of Dreyfuss, Malcolm and every other human, Caesar lays it out – you stay here and we’ll stay there – in simple yet unforgettable terms. It’s a diplomatic and unnerving offer of peace.

Knowing human nature, that just won’t do. As Dreyfuss allows Malcolm to take the same party back into the woods to plead Caesar to let them work on the dam, he takes inventory of the compound’s armory, preparing for a more forceful takeover. War is looming. A spying Koba knows this and he sees Caesar’s open hand to the humans as a sign of weakness.

One action cautiously leads to another on both sides and soon distrust and betrayal creep in through the back door. War is forced. Casualties abound amid bursts of heavy artillery, smoke, rocket launchers, explosions and a tank. Neither side can ever go back to the way things were.

There are definitely spectacular action scenes to behold in Dawn, specifically when Koba commandeers a tank and mows down everyone as he plows into the compound. Reeves brings us up-close to the enraged ape, circling around him as chaos reigns, deafening sound and blurring vision. Having directed Cloverfield,, Reeves knows a thing or two about a scene like this.

But he doesn’t just provide the requisite nonstop ‘summer action‘ we’ve come to expect. There’s surprising emotion present as well. We may not condone Koba’s actions, but we understand them. The sequence actually continues the developing characterization we’ve already become invested in, something that’s missing in so many sci-fi action movies nowadays.

As it heads to all-out war, Dawn shows reveals the challenges on each side, but it’s the quiet character moments that are most impacting, especially the family moments. Caesar has a hard time getting his son to think things through and not act so impulsively. He also can’t convince his son that some humans can be trusted, which is understandable considering the only knowledge Blue Eyes has of humans comes from the stories passed on by the apes. We also see a calm-before-the-storm scene with an emotional Dreyfuss scrolling through photos of the family he lost on a beat-up iPad.

We may not be used to these resonating moments in a movie that’s guaranteed to earn a load of cash at the box office, but we welcome them. There’s also a sweet bond developed between Maurice and Malcolm’s son over Charles Burn’s graphic novel, Black Hole. That’s a nice touch. Indeed, these moments are a refreshing change from all the clanging robots currently blaring in theaters.

It comes as no surprise that the actors portraying the apes offer the most compelling performances (honestly, the human characters can’t compete). Surely, the WETA animators must be given credit as well for developing these apes, but the body language here is incredible, from the way Serkis (the King of Mo-Cap) poses as Caesar to the jerky, forceful movements of Koba. None of it ever takes us out of the picture; instead it pulls even further into this world.

Composer Michael Giacchino (no stranger to sci-fi with Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness) matches the tension and narrative perfectly with a noticeable nod throughout to Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic soundtrack from the very first film from 1968.

If there are any problems with Dawn, it’s that I found myself predicting the trajectory of the characters throughout the movie. Not that they felt off or wrong, just familiar. It was obvious that this ape was going to show up here and that human would do this, but upon further thought, that’s because the story follows the Greek and Shakespearian tragedies of old. Since such classic stories fit so well into this story, it’s really no complaint at all.

Unlike the way Rise ended, I’m left wondering what will come after Dawn.. It looks like Caesar feels the same way as Reeves finishes it just as he opened, closing in on the leader’s expressive eyes, just as determined but a little more weary and wary.

(This review also appears on David's own website, Keeping It Reel.)

David J. Fowlie

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