Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review
The sequel to the reboot-prequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes strikes out as one of the absolute best in the ongoing Apes saga, and one of the better blockbusters of 2014 too.Indeed, barring the human factor, this instalment would likely be the very best of all of the movies, and raise the bar pretty damn high. Unfortunately, though, Studios aren’t quite (and probably never will be) ready to commit to a film utterly devoid of either human characters or the characteristics of a human-driven movie (i.e. the requisite effects-driven scenes of blowing stuff up unnecessarily), both of which would have made for an even better Apes entry.Still, thankfully the human element can almost be ignored in favour of the excellent depiction of the Ape characters, who take very little time indeed to become differentiated from one another, as fathers and sons, leaders and followers, heroes and villains – all fully-rounded, and far, far more so than any of their human counterparts. They’ll have you pitying them, frightened of them, both angry for and with them, and outright rooting for them. And eagerly anticipating the day after the Dawn.
You don’t need to have seen 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes to follow what happens in this movie, but those who have recently seen it will be rewarded by all the nods, references and recurring characters – apes characters that is. The story is set a decade after Rise, and a decade after the ALZ-113 prototype Alzheimer’s cure backfired and infected and killed most of the human population on the planet, leaving just 1 out of 500 immune to the virus.
Caesar and his band of Apes now rule their territory, hunting deer in the woods, setting up a fortress camp by a waterfall, in the middle of nowhere. Undisturbed, content, taking care of one another and growing their families – with Caesar having both a young son and a newborn on the way. They haven’t seen humans for years, but that all changes when a ragtag band of survivors encounters some of the apes, sparking off a chain of events that could either lead to an all-out war or a peaceful detente, once and for all.
If Rise sowed the seeds for an apocalypse, Dawn sees battle-lines being drawn; as the tag-line says Evolution becomes Revolution.
Right from the get-go Dawn establishes itself as a meaner, leaner and more committed Apes feature than its predecessor. Whilst Rise was engaging, it suffered from the same handicap that many reboots suffer from – it had to take time to establish the characters and detail their origins, whereas later chapters can just run with them. Dawn does just that, quite literally at the outset, allowing us a closer look at these new super-intelligent creatures and seeing, through their actions, that they are increasingly like us. Of course it is, essentially, a thinly-veiled remake of the final chapter in the classic old Apes saga, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, as anybody familiar with that story will easily be able to see, but it nevertheless trades in acute human observation, as seen through the behaviour of these apes.
Indeed perhaps that is the very essence of this sequel, as its core themes involve a full-circle return to the inspiration for the first movie – where Rise tried to show us apes who were closer to humans than ever before, Dawn shows the downside to their rapid evolution, and sees them displaying some very human flaws; succumbing to the same mistakes that have plagued mankind across the thousands of years of our history – through fear and anger, jealousy and bitterness – and eminently proving themselves no different from us after all.
The interaction with humans is a veritable tool to examine these traits in the apes – a necessary evil, as it were – but it does give way to the biggest problems that the film has. There is simply not enough time afforded to the human characters to flesh them out significantly and make them feel anything more than slightly-better-than-caricatures, and the likes of Jason Clarke (Lawless, Zero Dark Thirty), Gary Oldman and Keri Russell (Mission: Impossible III), despite their best efforts, simply cannot contend with their simian counterparts. And then there’s the idiot humans, who serve little purpose to act like no real human ever would purely to fuel the story.
Even with the better-drawn humans you will probably find yourself clock-watching as they chat feebly about life before the outbreak, desperately trying to draw the focus back to themselves when all we want to see is more from Caesar, his mentally and physically scarred battle-lieutenant Koba, his rebellious son, his ailing wife or even the orangutan head-teacher Maurice.
Whilst the humans were on-screen, all I could wait for was a return to the infinitely more interesting apes.
To this end one has to wonder whether they should establish a separate Award for best acting within the confines of a CG-rendered character, as the actors who bring these apes to life are across-the-board superb. Toby Kebbell (Dead Man’s Shoes, War Horse, Wrath of the Titans) excels as the troubled Koba, and is probably the only person who gives Serkis a run for his money, but it’s Serkis who would win the award – for this, Gollum, and numerous other motion-captured entities. His Caesar is a hero and a leader, but a flawed and sympathetic one, who you can both root for and relate to. Who can really complain about the lack of human character depth in a film which presents so many excellent non-human characters?
Ultimately Dawn is as much about apes becoming more like humans as it is about war, in one shape or another, being inevitable, and, in this respect, the battle sequences are thrilling and expertly captured, with director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) stepping in for Rise’s helmer Rupert Wyatt, and proving himself to be, once again, more than capable of delivering substance and spectacle. His action sequences are thrilling, with an adventurous 360-degree POV gun turret standing out in all the chaos.
Unfortunately, again taking a very human direction, Dawn still eventually devolves into stuff blowing up in bigger and badder ways, with a somewhat unnecessary denouement that almost felt like an Ape variant on Man of Steel’s finale. But this is the trouble that plagues both blockbusters and blockbuster sequels these days – the quest to do it bigger and better than last time often smothers the drive to do something suitable and fitting.
Although dedicated to exploring the humanity of the apes, it would have been refreshing if they'd taken a less cliched approach to the finale.
I would have welcomed a more character-driven confrontation - given all that had come before - and would have certainly loved a nod towards the hinted-at Mars shuttle that was launched off-screen during the events of the first movie, which would have, in my opinion, superbly brought things full-circle, back to Heston’s original Planet of the Apes, albeit stripping it of all that time-travel nonsense, hopefully. Yet rumours are that director Reeves chose to even trim his ending, and leave a bigger story to tell in the next chapter, which – given the massive Box Office success – is surely inevitable.
I thought Dawn was an excellent Apes entry, and only hope that somebody comes to their sense – and grows a pair – to finally deliver us a human-less chapter in this saga, where we can finally get embroiled head-to-toe in this animal farm. Now, that, I would love to see. In the meantime, though, this stands out as one of the best blockbusters of 2014, and comes highly recommended.
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