Several years after the virulent Simian Flu ravaged the world and killed off almost the entire human population, we join a post-apocalyptic world in which the apes who escaped the clutches of San Francisco during the brilliant Rise of the Planet of the Apes have established their own society in the wilderness just over the Golden Gate bridge, putting themselves on a level playing field with the human survivors, and clearly on the path to war, in Matt Reeves’ (Cloverfield) new sci-fi movie; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Leaders on either side don’t want war; head-ape Caesar (once more motion-captured by mo-cap king Andy Serkis, in a not only well cast, but extremely well performed, and fairly rounded role) is happy to keep his apes to themselves and simply wants to help his kind flourish, while the survivor’s number-two guy Malcolm (Jason Clarke, Lawless) appreciates the intelligence of the apes, and hopes to find a peaceful means of interacting (so the humans can use a damn located on ape land, and restore power to their basic, yet fortified, settlement which lies just on the city-side of the bridge).
Yet, these things never run smoothly, and there are forces on either side of this inter-species cold war who’d love to see the tension in this tinder-box ignite; human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, RoboCop/The Dark Knight Rises) doesn’t exactly yearn for war, yet he distrusts the apes (discounting their newfound intelligence), and has no qualms about attacking their encampment to access the dam, yet people within his camp (specifically Fringe/Oz star Kirk Acevedo) not only fear the apes, but utterly despise them, blame them for everything that has happened to the world, and would love nothing more than to eradicate them, and likewise certain apes (most notably the scarred Koba, mo-capped by RocknRolla’s Toby Kebbell) remember being mistreated, experimented on, and generally downtrodden by people before the apocalypse, and, holding only hate in their hearts, would love nothing more than to eradicate the remaining humans.
It’s a tense state of affairs, and one that’s so realistic (it really does mirror own own Cold War, and in that sense would’ve probably have had so much more impact if the story was told 30 years ago) it’s easy to see a state of affairs like this dragging two factions towards an inevitable war; which obviously kicks off towards the end of the film, and does so in a fashion which involves murder, intrigue, mistrust, danger, political-ramblings (in-house politics which threaten to derail the leadership of both parties), and machine-gun-wielding-apes riding horses.
In that sense Dawn of the Apes can look a bit fantastical, and seems to have shot forward in time too much; it doesn’t really make sense that the apes suddenly have all these horses, and have mastered taming and riding them, and their settlement itself (which features individual houses, and a school for teaching the younger apes their newly created laws; chiefly “Ape not kill Ape”; and English) is just a little too advanced; sure they mention it being at least ten years since they’ve been living alone, and a couple of years since they’ve even seen humans, but the number of apes living with Caesar has grown far too rapidly, they can all speak English far too well (and too often), and it just doesn’t seem to fit the timeline we’re supposed to have.
That said, if you can get past minor timeline issues such as those, the actual events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes make for a tense and exciting plot that while predictable, not only come with a worthwhile message, but prove realistic, and rather Shakespearian in their level of misunderstanding, backstabbing, and power-grabbing; everyone here has clear motives for acting as they do, and aside from a specific ape who goes full-evil, there aren’t really any bad guys here; every single character, even the cliched ones, are well rounded, well acted, and thoroughly believable.
The problem is, before going to see the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we already know what’s going to happen; we know the beginning, the middle, and the end; not only do we know the apes have to prevail from previous films, and where these movies have to lead, but the various trailers showed us as much (apes and people meet, strive for peace, it all goes wrong, and war breaks out), and that takes away not only the majority of the surprises (there are still some smaller ones), but diminishes the emotional impact of the film as a whole. During the Rise of the Apes, we knew the apes would escape at the end, but the journey was fresh, unexpected, and we really felt for Caesar, the tragedy he faced, and the emotional journey he had to go through in order to become King ape, but here, while the journey is realistic, it’s also a touch formulaic, a little too predictable, and thus lacking in emotional depth.
Serkis delivers another strong performance as Caesar (undoubtedly calling into question the possibility of giving awards for motion-capture performances once more, despite it not being an award-worthy performance), Kebbell is decent enough as ape-number-two Koba, and Jason Clarke delivers a decent showing as the struggling-for-peace Malcolm. Kirk Acevedo’s also strong, though cliched, as the more misanthropic member of Malcolm’s group, Keri Russell (Extraordinary Measures) is acceptable as Malcolm’s Mrs, and joined by the similarly acceptable (though far from astounding) Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) as Malcolm’s son, though while Gary Oldman is as strong a performer as ever, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes reduces him to little more than a bit-part; he has an important role to play, yet he’s totally underused, and really could’ve had a bigger impact on events if only his character was given more screentime.
In terms of effects, shooting style, and set design, it’s difficult to fault Dawn of the Apes; the CGI is fantastic (never has an ape looked so real), the post-apocalyptic world created for the film is exceptional (the apes settlement is wonderfully designed, and reminiscent of the apes’ civilisation in Charlton Heston’s original movie, while the devastated, overgrown, cityscapes populated by the remnants of the old human world would look right at home in the planned Last Of Us movie), and the direction and cinematography are spot-on.
So while we have some clear issues (notably the lack of emotional impact which draws from the predictable nature of the film), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is still a hugely impressive summer tentpole; we’ve got astounding special effects, a strong cast, a believable plot (in most regards), and not only solid direction and brilliant set design, but a grand score (delivered by the always impressive Michael Giacchino, who even works in some musical cues to reference the original films), rounded characters, and a tense adventure that’s sure to entrain, even if not enthral, the majority of viewers.
Anyone who likes Planet of the Apes should go an see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and while there’s no denying it’s not quite as good as Rise of the Planet of the Apes (our review of which can be found here), it’s still a hugely enjoyable film that deserves its fair share of praise.