Reviews and entertainment articles by Dave Simpson
When it hits cinemas in 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a rare thing; a reboot of a beloved franchise that was actually surprisingly good. And now its successor is something that’s even rarer; a sequel that manages to far surpass its much lauded predecessor. 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a true cinematic triumph in almost every way. The second installment in the rebooted Apes franchise is much more than a mindless, special effects laden, summer action fest. It is a deep, touching and emotional story that in many ways is as much an anthropological drama as it is a sci-fi action film.
The plot picks up ten years after the last movie. As was foreshadowed during the credits of Rise, Will Rodman’s ALZ-113 virus has spread across the globe with devastating results. Humanity has been decimated. Caesar’s apes, on the other hand, have continued to grow and evolve into a more intelligent and civilised society of their own. The story that Dawn explores is what happens when this new breed of apes comes into contact with one of the few surviving human colonies.
Director Matt Reeves doesn’t rely on fancy set pieces or contrived expositional scenes to build tension and plot. Instead, he relies on character development and the establishment of relationships to set events up and work towards a climax. It proves to be an inspired decision.
Focusing on establishing the personalities of the ape characters and the relationships between them makes for some of the most gripping storytelling I’ve ever encountered. It really invests you in these characters right from the beginning and succeeds in making them as relatable as any human characters could be. Reeves also proves that you don’t need a lot of dialogue to build character. Words do not define who an individual is and this movie adds an astonishing amount of depth to its ape characters by playing upon that.
That’s not to say that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is short on action in any way. It most certainly is not. However, its character based approach to storytelling means that its action set pieces are far from mindless. The action is not just a series of good looking visuals whose impressiveness is merely on a cosmetic level.
While the scenes of battle and warfare that Dawn showcases are indeed pulse pounding and exciting, the action is always tragic and devastating. This is down to the carefully constructed tension that leads to the climactic confrontations. There are a lot of grey areas in this movie as to right and wrong. There are heroes and villains among both the humans and the apes and all of their motivations are thoroughly explored. No one does anything just for the sake of it. The actions of all of the major players are understandable, even when they’re not justifiable.
The special effects during the set pieces are indeed impressive and realistic, but the most stunning CGI work here comes in the form of the apes themselves. The motion capture work that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes displays is spectacular. It really brings the apes alive as characters and captures their individuality and personalities flawlessly. They are astonishingly photo realistic.
As Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is very much a character drama, the greatest strengths of the movie lie in its performances. And thanks to the stunning motion capture work and well written script, the performances of the ape characters far outshine those of the human ones, particularly in the case of Caesar. This is very much his story.
Andy Serkis is beyond a shadow of a doubt the star of this movie. The expressions and mannerisms with which Serkis endows his motion captured performance are truly excellent. He proves that there is a very good reason why he has become the go to guy in Hollywood when it comes to major motion capture roles.
In the decade since the last movie, Caesar has undergone a very natural character progression. He is a noble and able leader, with a presence that has both a sense of intimidation and approachability about it. All of this is registered very clearly in his face and eyes. One look from Caesar says more than a thousand words. It’s a testament to Serkis’s performance and the care with which he is developed on screen that Caesar – despite being an ape – is easily one of the best characters to appear in recent movie history.
Another of the movie’s stand out performances comes from Toby Kebbell as Koba, Caesar’s right hand man and rival. Koba’s character and past are fleshed out well enough that we understand his motivations and there’s a kind of moral ambiguity to his actions. By well establishing why he is who he is, it opens up the argument as to where the blame could ultimately be laid for his deeds.
Caesar’s eldest son, Blue Eyes, is also developed extremely well without uttering more than a few words. It’s all in his face and expressions. He is a clearly troubled young ape with a conscience. Motion capture or not, as with Serkis, it is a testament to the abilities of actor Nick Thurston that he manages to convey so much through very little dialogue.
Then we have Caesar’s orangutan confidante, Maurice, who – along with Caesar and Koba – is another of the returning ape characters from Rise. As in Rise, Maurice is one of the most likable and fun to watch of the apes, conveying a sense of wisdom and morality within Caesar’s society.
The development and portrayal of the ape characters may greatly overshadow that of the human characters in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but this doesn’t mean that the performances of the actors behind the humans are in any way bad.
Taking over as the human protagonist from James Franco is Jason Clarke as Malcolm. His character isn’t actually too dissimilar to that of Will Rodman in the last film, in that he is sympathetic to the apes and respectful of them. Clarke does well in the role and while it would have been nice to see Franco return as the go between for Caesar and humanity, plot wise I understand why that might not have made sense.
Gary Oldman portrays Dreyfus, a man who has lost a lot more than Malcolm in the years since the end of Rise and, similar to Koba, whose actions have their root in his past tragedies. Oldman doesn’t actually receive as much screen time as you might expect of an actor of his calibre, but his performance as a man struggling with great loss is admirable nevertheless.
Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee play Malcolm’s wife, Ellie, and son, Alexander, respectively. While their characters don’t manage to make the same impact as those mentioned above, both Russell and Smit-McPhee do what is required of them well and without error.
One issue that did strike me while watching the movie though was the fact that a bigger deal wasn’t made out of a human saying “no” to an ape, now that the apes are the masters of their own society. Fans of the original films will remember that after that series’s version of Caesar had established a new society in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, it was a great taboo for a human to say “no” to an ape as it recalled the days when apes were slaves to humanity. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the apes don’t seem to make that big of a deal out of it. While I can’t offer it as a criticism because this is a whole new Apes series, I felt that a good opportunity to play homage to the original movies was missed by not establishing that apes will no longer tolerate being told “no” by humans.
All in all though, I found Dawn of the Planet Apes to be a masterpiece not only of the Apes franchise as a whole, but of movie making and storytelling in general. It is a powerful, intelligent and incredibly moving science fiction drama. The focus on character over weightless action makes a great impact and resonates long after the credits have rolled. The performances and direction are stellar and establish this as so much more than a mere summer popcorn movie. This is a movie that matters. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trusts in its audience’s intellect rather than insulting it, which results in a thoroughly satisfying and rewarding cinema going experience.
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