It is not often that movie critics leave a cinema so excited about a movie they have just that seen they sound like the majority of the cast. In this case, we were ape sh*t crazy about what we had just experienced. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of two movies I have been looking forward to most this year and as such had lowered my expectations somewhat just to prepare for disappointment; how foolish. What I experienced is nothing short of a movie changing moment on the same level that Avatar was, only with a story that isn’t woven together by a five year old on the back of a candy wrapper.
The surprising 2011 hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes had already set the bar very high. Directed by Rupert Wyatt with leads James Franco (the human) and Andy ‘if you can think it, I can act it’ Serkis as Caesar (the ape) the reboot was a huge success. However, with Wyatt’s departure (due to time constraints) and Matt Reeves’ (Cloverfield) coming on board for Dawn, I was a bit apprehensive. However, thanks to Reeves changing the script at the last minute to focus on Caesar, we get a distinctly more ‘human’ experience by spending the majority of our time watching apes.
The movie takes place some ten years after the viral outbreak seen at the end of Rise, a virus that wipes out nearly every human being on Earth (including, we assume, James Franco’s character). Unlike Rise though, this time we are seeing the world through the eyes of the apes and the story takes place in the society they have built. The movie opens with a hunting scene that goes a bit wrong which serves to introduce relationships between Caesar, his aggressively protective friend Koba (Toby Kebbell) and Caesar’s first son River aka Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). The dynamics between these three play a central role throughout the movie and will have you feeling ‘the feels’ more than victims on an Oprah show. And as we see shortly, after a band of the remaining last humans – whom the apes had believed extinct – stumble on them, Caesar has very different opinions on how to treat their former masters than Koba.
In one scene Caesar sums up why Koba is so angry saying ‘he learnt only hate from the humans’ and it is Caesar’s willingness to work with the humans and Koba’s increasing anger that sets up the main plot for the movie. Interestingly in the first treatment of the script the movie started with our primate friends all able to fully converse in English – as opposed to the sign language and guttural simple sentences used early in the film – but was later removed to make more of an impact when they do speak. Just watch as Koba chooses his own path and starts speaking more and more of the tongue of those he despises so much.
On the other side of the evolutionary scale we have the humans who have suffered countless deaths from a viral outbreak leaving just a fraction of a percentage alive. Set in post-apocalyptic San Francisco the humans have built a society in a tower, a society about to run out of fuel and so very desperate not to return to the literal dark ages. In order to keep the power on they devise a plan to start a local hydro dam, which is the reason they stumble on the apes in the first place. In Dawn, humans take much more of a background role compared to Rise and act as a catalyst for what happens back at ‘camp ape’. This is not to say they don’t have some important moments but their presence is more of a background noise than foreground agent. Don’t get me wrong, there are some solid actors playing some decent roles. Gary Oldman (Dreyfus) plays the battle scarred leader of the surviving humans and Jason Clarke (Malcolm) leads the team to fix the dam and develops a close bond with Caesar.
We get more screen time with Clarke, who does a brilliant job, and of course Oldman is great in anything, but to be honest they are outdone by their computer generated counterparts. The apes are brought to life by amazing acting and the best CGI I have ever seen. Karin Konoval plays Maurice, the orangutan, and is able to say more through her eyes than other characters can through their voices. Other notable mentions are Terry Notary as Rocket, Caesar’s second-in-command, who brings a sense of power and loyalty that is literally palpable and of course Koba.
Koba is in a different league though, able to bring a sense of menace that he can change to foolishness when the time calls for it. This truly generated some of the tensest scenes I have ever witnessed in the cinema and had me thinking of Hannibal on more than one occasion. And that is where the magic in this movie lies. Not once did I think ‘hey, this isn’t bloody real’; there was no breach of the fourth wall. Instead you find yourself rooting for one camp, then the other, and back again and you truly feel for the dilemma Caesar is placed in. But then you would, because he’s ‘real’.
Dawn offers a far more detailed investigation of Caesar and his role as leader of the apes. We see he is a father of two (though sadly the role of his ‘wife’ is not explored more, something that could also be said for the role of Keri Russell – wife of Malcolm). We see him learning more about what loyalty means and we also see his realisation of where he stands with humans. It is not often that a movie containing characters that are purely CGI can communicate emotions on such a strong level. Reeves has managed to weave a bloody good action movie with a strong story of family and loyalty and do it using apes that have more soul than the majority of present day movies. Hail Caesar!
PS: Although the apes look completely life-like, don’t think you’ll be seeing any of their private parts flapping about, I know some people were confused about this omission…
Dawn of Planet of the Apes is released on July 11 and is 130 minutes long.
Last Updated: July 8, 2014