The poster for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes features a picture of an angry chimpanzee riding on a horse while wielding an assault rifle. It is my duty as a reviewer to go into films with an open mind, but I must admit that there are few concepts you could put in front of me that would fill me with glee more than that specific vision. Thankfully for my reputation, Dawn more than lives up to its first impression, going above and beyond 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes to deliver a smart and thrilling blockbuster in a summer particularly filled with loud and dumb clunkers. While it probably could have used one more pass in the editing department before being sent out to theaters, Dawn still delivers on every concept you could want out of your intelligent apes movie, while not overloading on either the sentiment or the action. After browsing a list of what is due out for the rest of the summer, I can’t imagine anything coming close to reaching the highs that you can find here.
The story picks up a decade after the closing moments of Rise, where a “simian flu” spread across the world and took out a significant chunk of the human population. The apes who escaped into the redwoods have thrived in their new forest home under the leadership of Caeser (Andy Serkis) and his most trusted advisers. Their group encounters scouts sent out from a small band of humans who survived the outbreak, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman basically recycling his Commissioner Gordon performance) and Malcom (Jason Clarke). They have come back to San Francisco to take advantage of a deactivated dam and attempt to restart human civilization. You can probably guess how well that goes considering the title of the film, but the journey to get to Charlton Heston kneeling in front of Lady Liberty continues to be interesting nevertheless.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
In Theaters: July 11th, 2014
Runtime: 131 min
Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language
Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell
Genre: Action, Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Studio: Chernin Entertainment
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Official Site: http://www.dawnoftheplanetoftheapes-movie.com
There was a time when I was young when movies offered me the most authentic look into other worlds. Video games have long since supplanted this in my generation, but Dawn reminded me of that old movie magic. There is no struggle to imagine Caeser, Maurice, and Koba as real characters despite their CGI origins, and the performance capture that makes that happen is second to none. The entire first stretch of the film is without traditional dialogue, instead going with subtitled sign language. It allows the viewer to bond with the ape society and get to know them as real characters. When someone finally does speak up, it’s that much more powerful of a moment, and immediately establishes the tension that is held throughout the majority of the film’s long running time.
Speaking of which, the only real complain I have with the film is its pacing. For the majority of the running time, I was utterly transfixed on the action on the screen, loving everything as it all culminated on a huge warlike set piece. However, Dawn keeps going after this climax for another half hour or so, and nothing they can do builds up to the prior highs. It also doesn’t help that, as a prequel, everyone watching basically knows the endgame going in, so what could have been a powerful ending straight out of Empire Strikes Back turns into a overextended mess that arrives at the same destination. You’ll have to trust me after you see it, as going into too much detail would ruin way too much of the fun, but it’s a shame that it didn’t happen since this is the traditional “dark middle chapter” of the new Apes trilogy.
Really though, that’s a nitpick compared to all the positives that Dawn brings to the table. It’s surprising in the same ways that Rise was, and resists the need to continue to reference its own prequel that many Hollywood franchise films succumb to. Dawn instead tells a complete story about civilization and humanity all its own. It succeeds at being powerful while also being accessible to those who wouldn’t seek out the award show fare released around the end of the year. It also continues the work that Peter Jackson started in legitimizing motion capture performance. Andy Serkis and his peers who perform as apes in this films give far more raw and potent performances than the entire casts of some other Summer productions, and that definitely deserves to be recognized sometime soon. The shots and moments you’re remember from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will almost certainly involve the story of Ceaser rather than the humans he is letting onto his land.
This entire Planet of the Apes reboot should be a blueprint in the future for studios looking to take advantage of their own franchises, especially when compared to Tim Burton’s insanity from the decade prior. Both of these films add to and play off of the canon without either throwing all of it away (Star Trek), shoving it into an alternate history (Star Wars), or just recreating the first film over and over instead of expanding. This is the kind of blockbuster that isn’t made anymore, one with action, high drama, a great sense of humor, and enough trust in its audience to appreciate its themes without constant reminders. Dawn is a film that can mystify children and adults alike, and one that builds to and earns its upcoming sequel while still remaining entertaining in its own right.