Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review: More Valuable Primates
Back in 2011, 20th Century Fox rebooted the Planet of the Apes franchise. It was a terrible idea on paper – especially since they started by “re-imagining” the third sequel – but it yielded an unexpectedly emotional, satisfying sci-fi yarn: a super-intelligent ape, abused at the hands of insensitive humans, kicks off a small-scale rebellion that inadvertently releases a deadly virus destined to wipe out nearly all of mankind. The film worked largely because it played this story as straight, even matter-of-fact drama, emphasizing the complex reactions that any intelligent creature would have to being treated like a simple beast, and putting mankind in the crosshairs as a species utterly worthy of raging ape vengeance.
While it would be a gross exaggeration to call Rise of the Planet of the Apes a brilliant film, it was at least a relatively grounded one, relegating its sole action sequence to the third act and even earning the right to throw apes onto helicopters after lots of relatable character development. The new sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is a different entity: a post-apocalyptic thriller about the tragedy of war and the pettiness of political upheaval, playing the material as straight as it possibly could while still orgiastically filming angry apes on horseback who dual-wield assault rifles.
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It’s been ten years since the Great Ape Rebellion, and Caesar (Serkis & Co.) now leads a large community of apes in the wilderness not far from the remains of San Francisco. A scouting party of humans led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) stumbles onto Caesar’s camp while trekking to a nearby hydroelectric dam, which they hope will restore power to their own struggling community of survivors. Although the leaders of both societies want to cultivate a perhaps shaky alliance, knowing full well that war would be costly no matter who won, a handful of prejudiced apes and humans alike gradually throw events into motion that lead to the apes vs. humans battle we all were promised in the trailers.
It’s a satisfyingly compact story with a complex ape hero, a simplistic ape villain and a bunch of underdeveloped human characters evenly divided into the “good” and “bad” categories. The good ones let the apes borrow their comic books. The bad ones shoot them on sight. Only Gary Oldman straddles the line as a human leader who hopes for the best but plans for the worst, but he’s sadly given too little screen time to matter one way or the other.
As the title suggests, the apes are really the focus here and they have been realized using some of the most uncanny visual effects ever filmed. The apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes were already impressive to begin with, but the seams were still visible if you knew where to look for them. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes features ape characters so convincing you’re likely to forget that they’re really just humans with cameras strapped to their faces and polka dots on their skintight body suits. What’s more, those humans are talented actors who complete the illusion with impeccable physical performances and a sparing use of dialogue.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes plays at greater significance, suggesting in a less-than-subtle way that society will breed brutal conflict regardless of which species is atop the global food chain. But it’s not a complex message, and the film’s abrupt second-half segue into brutal violence and a climactic fistfight against Standard Action Sequence Backdrop #5 undermines any headier notions it may have had about peaceful coexistence and the larger ramifications about life on this Earth. It is, in the end, just a well-made movie about apes fighting humans in a post-apocalyptic landscape, and that’s a very fun thing to watch.