In the new cynical, cash-grabbing sweepstakes to manufacture polished, all-appealing four quadrant blockbusters— specifically engineered to reap hundreds of millions of dollars, of course— 20th Century Fox’s “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” sequel is of a rare, rare breed. It’s the genuine article, an engrossing tentpole with serious themes, complex moral conflicts and emotional stakes, and one that doesn’t feel as if it was written by committee or structured around big and familiar action set pieces. And it’s one that executes on all its lofty ambitions from minute one with nary a false note. In truth, the deeply absorbing and thematically rich ‘Apes’ sequel is more akin to a drama than an action film, but it's one that still satisfies the desires and demands of big, blockbuster filmmaking.
Brilliantly realized by director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield,” “Let Me In”), “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” is also the rare sequel that justifies its existence from the outset with an almost radically different approach that borders on soft reboot (in the best sense of beginning anew). While it doesn’t fully eschew its predecessor, “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes,” it certainly doesn’t lean on the original and isn’t experienced as the latest episode in the further adventures of apes versus men (it functions so much as a standalone movie one could mistake it for disavowing 'Rise'). To that end, the only (major) returning character is Caesar, the young, genetically-evolved ape, motion-captured and vividly rendered to life by Andy Serkis. But the similarities in tone and thematic concerns are much darker and tragic.
Whereas most sequels pick up where the last film left off, stars and heroes intact, ‘Dawn’ is more interested in legacy and consequences and how they reverberate, but only as a launching pad to explore a deeper story about leaders, the integrity of their characters, how they choose to rule. It’s also a story about the elemental nature of violence, the high costs of hostility and the dark side of humankind. Set 10 years after the events of the first film, a simian flu-like virus has wiped out large chunks of civilization and all that’s left are pockets of human survivors. Caesar is now an adult ape, with responsibilities and obligations to a community. He’s a husband (Judy Greer plays his wife), a father to a rebellious teenage son (Nick Thurston) with another son on the way and a benevolent and wise leader who lords over a troop of primates who haven’t come into human contact in several years.
However, the simian tranquility in the forests outside of San Francisco is soon broken upon the arrival of a scout team of humans lead by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his new family (Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his group of armed men (Enrique Murciano and Jon Eyez) on a reconnaissance mission. Men stumble upon apes, the mutually surprised parties quickly clash and the game quickly changes once a hotheaded and hateful member of the human group (played by Kirk Acevedo) draws first blood, wounding a young ape. But before the apes can rain down swift and furious vengeance on the humans, the powerful and judicious Caesar intervenes, admonishing the humans to leave, setting in motion the conflicts that will define the film.
For the surviving humans, led by fair, but more anxious Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) with his own personal baggage, desperation has set in. A brief order has been restored, but with dwindling rations, unless power can be restored via a dam that lives dangerously close to ape territory, a return to chaos is right around the corner. The dilemma for the apes is even more complex, especially with human-dubious lieutenants like Koba (Toby Kebbell) questioning Caesar’s every decision and pushing for war. The question becomes whether or not to strike now while the humans are weak, or preserve the peace and prevent putting needless innocents at risk of war. While a fragile truce is eventually formed between humans and apes — a loose and brief understanding brokered by Malcolm and Caesar— fear, ignorance and mistrust on both sides threaten to destroy goodwill at every turn.
Reeves and his writers (Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback) approach the material with a thoughtful, character-driven motivation and sensitivity that earns the movie a weighty solemnity and foreshadows value to the price of every outcome. And that motivation is impelled by a simian point of view. If Caesar was arguably the co-star of ‘Rise’ alongside the sympathetic father figure played by James Franco (only seen here in brief video footage), the movie further pushes the idea of identifying with the primate perspective.
Many of the writing choices are inspired, managing to draw evident parallels that still never feel overt (the collective struggles for peace and respect faintly echo the disparate ideologies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and the Palestinian/Israeli conflict isn’t far from mind) . And the way ‘Dawn’ builds dramatic symmetrical stakes is effective – pitting family against family while adding the supplementary gravity of a newborn son for Caesar. Never has a man (or ape) had to weigh the potential fee of rash actions in the wake of a new life entering this world.
‘Apes’ is unique among summer movies in that it ponders the repercussions of its violence, from the first shotgun blast that rips through the forest like thunderclap of death, to the hail of bullets that rains down during war erasing the lives of many; every act has grave consequences. “Dawn of The Planet Of The Apes” also functions on many levels. It’s thrilling piece of blockbuster filmmaking, it continues to act as a prequel to the events in the 1968 “Planet Of The Apes” movie (though you’re rarely cognizant of it, as the story is so here and now), and it’s a bruising tragedy about fear and misunderstanding with easily drawn analogies to cultural racism and xenophobia. It’s also a morally textured drama about broken brotherhoods, shattered trusts and the tragic failure to coexist. Indeed, “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” packs in a lot thematically, but never feels overstuffed (and its patient pace carefully lays everything out).
Post-apocalyptic in setting, Reeves’ picture is more interested in that milieu as context than genre. Where the picture does wisely exploit post-civilization tropes are in its dramatic stakes. Human circumstances are dire, thus ‘Dawn’ answers the question of what happens to humanity when it devolves to its most primal state. These fundamental desires of survival at their most desperate and base are chillingly resonant and trigger extreme and urgent conflict with a species that is perhaps much more evolved than the humans could care to admit. They also shade and contour every antagonist with relatable sympathy; how can you censure the man simply trying to defend his family? To that end, “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” is largely free of traditional villains, instead focusing on misunderstanding antagonists with good intentions that go astray.
So at its its more reductive core, “Dawn Of The Apes” could be described as “Lord Of The Flies” meets “Do The Right Thing” in a dystopian setting. The movie is a primal examination of survival at its most visceral core and the choices made to sustain it.
Visually, “Dawn Of The Apes” is a marvel of motion-capture technology. If “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” was groundbreaking in its ability to emotionally invest the viewer with the sympathies of its CGI character, ‘Dawn’ ups the ante tenfold. Every nuance and shade of emotion is captured, well drawn and expressly communicated. And the photorealism of the primates is extraordinarily good. In fact, they are so authentic, they begin to act as good effects should: invisibly, absorbing the viewer all the more wholeheartedly in the core struggles of trying to do the right thing. There’s an outstanding cast doing fine work all around – Clarke, Oldman, Russell all run circles around the largely disengaged Franco and Freida Pinto from 'Rise' – but it’s a testament to the beautiful Weta VFX that the movie still belongs to the apes and the motion capture actors breathing them to life.
If there are issues to be had, they are minor. Michael Giacchino’s score is quite good, but the occasional musical allusions to the original “Planet Of The Apes” score are noticeable enough to slightly distract (and feel like the film’s only example of fan service). The movie’s tragic arc doesn’t seem like it’s pushed as far as it naturally wants to go, but perhaps a full-blown bummer wouldn’t have worked at the multiplex either.
Comparisons to “The Empire Strikes Back” may be slightly overblown, but one can understand why they’ve been excitedly made. It’s the uncommon superior sequel, and one of the best blockbusters in recent history that improves upon the original. And even though it ends by teasing another sequel (much like ‘Empire’ did), it’s arguably a much more satisfying conclusion that does feel mostly like a story unto itself.
Skillfully blending well-orchestrated spectacle and scope with heart, soul and thought-provoking ideas, Matt Reeves’ “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” acts in the mold of the ideal, classic blockbuster. Filmmakers will often give lips service to this model, but achieving this goal is usually much more easily said than done. And ‘Dawn’ nails it. Deeply engrossing, with rarely a dull moment over its 130 minute running time, this gripping picture sets the benchmark for all summer blockbusters to aspire to this year. [B+/A-]