Remember Rise of the Planet of the Apes? That mostly forgettable despite being fairly decent reboot/prequel to the Plant of the Apes series. It wasn’t a bad film by any means. The human characters were flat and uninteresting but the apes, led by Andy Serkis as Caesar more than made up for that. There’s running theme in Hollywood for sequels to be worse than the original. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the biggest steps up in quality from one film to the next that I have ever come across. It’s not just good, it is full blown excellent and possible near masterpiece level. I was not expecting that. Click the link below for my more wordy review.
Dawn begins 10 years after Rise. The human race is largely wiped out due to the, somewhat incorrectly named, Simian flu. Those that remain are holed up in small colonies or are busy killing each other off over scraps. The apes from Rise, though, are living quietly in the forests around San Francisco. Led by Caesar they have built a society with rules regarding how they should interact, a primary rule being that apes do not kill apes. When two young apes encounter a scared human one ends up getting shot. This proves to be a huge problem as the humans were there only to look for a dam they could use as a power source and the apes kinda don’t like being shot. A lesser film would have kicked off the war right there. Director Matt Reeves was smart enough to tell a story first.
This film… man, it is a prime example of how you tell and explore a narrative correctly. It’s an example of how sci-fi should be done. And even then it is an example of just how good and satisfying a huge summer blockbuster film can be. On the narrative front most of the cast have defined character arcs that intertwine of parallel those of other characters. Often a human story has a parallel with an ape characters, such as Carter (Kirk Acevedo) who hates apes and is the one that shoots the young ape at the start is paralleled with the film’s main villain Koba (Toby Kebbell) who hates humans due to their vicious experiments on him. Toby Kebbell, by the way, is superb as Koba. I’m not going to pretend that this form of motion capture brings the entirety of an actor’s performance through, it’s a combined effort with the effects and animation teams, but his mannerisms and presence is incredibly strong. When Koba rallies the apes to go to war you get why they’re following him and you’ll understand his motivations.
Essentially he and Caesar represent the difference between seeing one side of people and having experienced both. The difference between making a judgement based on all the facts and reacting out of anger without knowing everything. A microcosm of internet forums. Oh, and probably life or something. Caesar got to experience the kindness and potential for good from the humans whereas all Koba knew was violence and pain. In the middle of this is Caesar’s son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) who is torn between the two as he only knows about humans from what he has been told from his father and Koba. He is the moral centre of the film, torn between the two, who must find the right path to take.
When it comes to the human characters a similar dynamic is shared by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Both men helped establish the colony the humans currently reside in within San Francisco. The former believes a path to piece can be maintained and understands how they need to work with the apes to get that dam running. Meanwhile Dreyfus is scared of losing what little humanity has left and is prepared to fight the apes for his people’s safety. He’s not a warmonger though. He’d rather protect that fight, but he feels the situation is dangerously close to requiring war. One thing this film also manages well is taking characters down paths you may not expect. I won’t spoil the film but plenty of the character arcs end up in different places than you imagine, or their characters take altered paths than you are used to seeing from these types of roles. All of this is done logically though, which means that, for once, we’re getting a film that actually manages to not be 100% predictable. Who would have thought we’d see a big summer blockbuster like that in this day and age.
The film’s effects work is, quite honestly, astounding. The digital apes looked really good in the previous film but here they’re near flawless at time. Not to mention that there is multiple times more of them. There’s also the work gone into making San Francisco look like it’s been taken over by nature, as would happen to a city abandoned for long enough. If you’ve played The Last of Us or Enslaved you’ll have an idea of how the city looks here. The main human colony does remind me a lot of the human colony from Land of the Dead, especially one of the first establishing shots that pans up from a bustling market to a tower high above them. Thankfully they didn’t retread that films rich/poor divide dynamic. Some of the effects work is pulled into some incredible shots too. One in particular where, mid battle, the camera stays on the turret of a tank for an extended shot as Koba takes it over as the turret rotates slowly showing the full scope of the street battle.
Another aspect of the film that really stands out is the score. Whilst It has the soaring themes you expect from big summer films, it’s the tension building moments, such as when the apes first make contact with the humans, that drive home the uniqueness of the score. What composer Michael Giacchino has done is make thematic and instrumental callbacks to the original Planet of the Apes films by utilising the kind of melodies and instruments you’d expect to hear in a film of the 1960s. It will likely remind many of the sort of score you’d hear in an episode of Kirk era Star trek. Actual Kirk, not modern angry dickwad Kirk. Lots of whistles, pipes and so on. I really didn’t expect that sort of score. Towards the film’s climax this score is gradually phased out for a more traditional Hollywood score but in the early goings it does a fine job of raising the tension whilst mentally reminding you of this film series’ heritage and where the series may eventually go.
If there is anything I must criticise the film for it’s that a few minor characters just disappear from the film in the final act. Keri Russell’s Ellie and Kodi Smith-McPhee’s Alexander are both central characters through much of the plot but vanish for the film’s finale. Granted they likely had served all the purpose they could have but you’d expect them to be involved in the film’s final scenes due to how central they were to many of the scenes with the apes themselves. Also, Alexander is reading Charles Burn’s Black Hole and shares this book with the ape Maurice (Karin Konoval). This isn’t a gripe at all really, I just question if a book about teenagers sharing a mutating STD with each other is the wisest work to introduce another society to human life with.
So, yeah, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is pretty much a near flawless work. I was hoping it would at least be decent, the trailers seemed to make it clear that it would be. I wasn’t expecting a masterclass in character development, narrative and the art of the blockbuster all in one film. The best recommendation I heard was from a group of teenagers on my way out that complained that the film was too boring for the first hour. This is likely because the first hour is almost entirely character focused and tension building. This teen sounded pretty stupid and so I can only take his inability to handle a film more complex than, let’s say, Transformers 4, as being a ringing endorsement. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is excellent in every way. Go see it. Best film I’ve seen this year.