Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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When civilizations are pushed to the brink, is war inevitable? When resources are rapidly dwindling and relationships begin to fracture, is there any way to avoid conflict? For a film featuring a primate at its center, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a great deal on its mind. If its predecessor was an above average look at the genesis of the apes’ intelligence, this sequel is a morally considered step forward. While its human characters are underdeveloped, they are rightfully secondary, as the fascinating core of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is held in the palm of one ape.

Dawn begins with a brief prologue, a global layout of the spread of the simian flu that would come to eliminate a vast majority of the human population on Earth. It has been a decade since the pivotal events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and primates haven’t come into contact with humans in two years. Living in peaceful seclusion in the forests outside of former San Francisco, they are led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), the same central ape who incited the rebellion in Rise. He encourages harmony and togetherness among the clan while raising his own family. The calm that the apes enjoy is suddenly shattered, however, when a group of scouting humans enter their domain. With their supplies nearly spent in what remains of San Francisco, their only hope for survival is to power up a hydroelectric dam near the apes’ borders. The leader of the mission, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), reaches a tenuous agreement with Caesar, who also has no intentions of antagonism. However, there are other members of both species who fail to see peace as a long term option.

It’s a gutsy move for a studio tentpole to commence with non human characters, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes deserves to be lauded for it. Showing the apes’ in their new home at the outset encourages empathy, and further, Dawn quite purposefully places Caesar as its protagonist. He was the cause of the rebellion in the first film, and therefore feels responsible for his fellow primates. When humans enter the picture, he cautions against attacking them, for then all the apes have built would be lost. Most are in agreement with him, but one chimp named Koba (Toby Kebbell) is more militant in mindset. Once cruelly experimented upon by humans, Koba sees that acquiescing to their pleas will only lead to ape enslavement again, or worse, extinction. It is his butting of heads with Caesar that forms the most compelling conflict of the film, akin to an MLK vs Malcolm X ideological struggle. Part of this is also reflected in a conflict between Malcolm and de facto human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), but the motivations are less complex. All of the human characters have lost loved ones due to the virus, so while Malcolm is one of the few pacifists, most others are eager for a fight.

Just as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes keeps its attention towards apes more than humans, the motion capture aided performances are the ones of greater note. Kebbell is quite impressive as the gangly chimp, but it is once again Serkis’ magnetism that propels Dawn. There is much to be written about the accuracy of movement and gestures here, yet Caesar’s stoic eyes are the crux of the film. Truly great actors are defined not by line deliveries, but by what they’re doing when they’re not speaking. Serkis is without question in this league, even in performance capture, for in every reaction shot or lead up to a line, you can just feel Caesar thinking. It’s certainly one of the best performances of the year, and without question the most layered protagonist of this summer’s studio tentpole offering.

Another reason for why Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a significant step above its predecessor lies in its tone. Director Matt Reeves has taken on dark material before, and the film opens proper with a striking image: an extreme closeup on Caesar’s eyes, slowly pulling out to a wide shot of an entire clan. He gives the signal, and they swing and swoop through the misty and dank forest, on the hunt for food. As they effortlessly move, Gyorgi Ligeti’s unnerving choral “Requiem” plays in the background, as if Reeves had discovered an alternate scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Reeves also favors centered and clean compositions in the cinematography, which often yield stunning results such as in an early scene when Caesar leads his entire population into San Francisco, in order to both prove his might and also to declare his peaceful intentions. It should go without saying that WETA Digital’s work on these apes is first rate, but the photorealism on display here is significantly aided by the fact that most scenes occur under overcast skies. Of course, the moodiness and continual improving of CGI would mean nothing if the film was just an empty excuse for man on ape warfare. Enticing as it is to see apes carrying automatic weapons astride horses (and it unquestionably delivers when the moment arrives), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is less about that image than it is about the actions and consequences leading to it. Perhaps there is no true answer to whether war is avoidable in dire circumstances, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is wise to not ask how these things happen, but rather, to examine why.

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~ by romancinema on July 20, 2014.

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