Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Review


I have come to praise Caesar, not bury him

O judgement! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.
– Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

A few significant things occur in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. First, it improves upon the James Franco-led first entry (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), which was very good in its own right. Secondly, the apes explode off the screen through impressive special effects from the animators at Weta Digital. Finally, it is a statement movie – in the guise of a summer popcorn flick – that speaks volumes of humanity. It’s rare that we get a blockbuster that aims to have audiences to be of an open mind and absorb the minutiae contained therein, looking beyond its eye-popping visuals to a story where its theme of universal humanity transcends all boundaries. In this case, instead of being about different nations or races, it provides introspection on primates, especially us humans.

Picking up ten years after a deadly virus, dubbed the “Simian Flu,” has wiped out most of the human populace, we catch up with Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the ape community that has formed on the outskirts of San Francisco. There is no co-habitation between ape and human. The outbreak has stirred up so much paranoia in the remaining survivors that there is a definite xenophobia against apes, even though Caesar and his extended family have made no attempts to disturb the humans after the spread of the virus.

With the concept of Us and Them clearly identified the outlier is Caesar himself, a chimpanzee raised by humans (not in captivity but as if he were a family member) that gained superior cognitive ability as the result of inheriting his mother’s high intelligence, herself the test subject of a clinical trial to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. When the apes begin to rise up to their tormentors and release themselves from caged environments, as they do in the previous Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the idea of humans being of a superior intellect is questioned. What’s intriguing is the science is there to back up such a suggestion. Since the chimpanzee is one of three animals besides humans that recognize itself in a mirror, picture if you will a situation where a chimp suddenly turned the mirror so their human counterparts could see their own reflections. Would the human like the image he sees of himself, having subjected animals to clinical trials? It’s this kind of rhetorical question that gets to the heart of Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

If you fall into the Charles Darwin camp and his evolutionary theory that ape was an ancestor to man, who’s to say that man isn’t de-evolution. The scenario proposed by both Rise of the Planet of the Apes and its sequel gives us reverse Darwinism. The ape continues to advance, while man continues to be its own worst enemy. Wars. Famine. Disease. These are but a few ways we have tried to bring about the end of our species.

For Caesar and his ape family peace is constant. “Ape don’t kill ape,” is a quote that serves as a reminder of why they have maintained order without malice towards one another for a decade. If there’s friction it is sparked from Koba (Toby Kebbell), a malevolent chimp that hates humans for having physically scarred him while in captivity. He is the only one in the community who questions Caesar as a leader and his unwillingness to seek revenge when one of their own is killed by encroaching humans. Instead of revenge, Caesar attempts to maintain peace with allowing the humans to work on a nearby dam in order to generate the power needed for its own community.

Considering the manner in which the film opens, on the apes first before venturing to San Francisco’s quarantined zone known as The Tower, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes clearly belongs to the hairy primates. They are the stars and humans are the set dressing – the casual antagonists. Gary Oldman as Dreyfus is the leader of the human community, but he’s hardly a villain. Though it is never explained Oldman’s leadership was thrust upon him out of necessity, as a means to maintain some semblance of society. Yet when Malcolm (Jason Clarke), another survivor, begins to bond with Caesar and the apes the battle lines between human and ape begin to dissolve. In reality, there are no true sides for the viewer to swear allegiance.

But when Caesar’s top lieutenant Koba instigates a war between the two species for personal fulfillment instead of the betterment of his own kind, it serves as a critique on the classes of species. Koba’s superior intelligence is clouded by vengeance and an unwillingness to forgive. Man is beneath him and it is that rationalization that would become his frailty. Having lived with humans Caesar has greater sensibility. He knows to be untrusting of them, yet his personal experiences have put him on a path of peace, not violence. The commonalities between Koba and Dreyfus character, along with Caesar and Malcolm is very much in the tradition of Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion in that in spite of these characters hailing from different species commonalities exist.

Andy Serkis continues to blur the lines of acting and performance capture with his second go-around as Caesar. He provides so much depth and emotion to the scenes between the apes and the humans that it’s difficult to separate yourself from the acting and the animation. It’s also a credit to the effects teams that pushes the CG and has it be phenomenal yet not be overwhelming. And the production design in creating a moss-covered, decaying San Francisco with rusted-out cars on the Golden Gate Bridge is also stellar. I couldn’t help but be reminded of last year’s The Last of Us, a survival horror video game in which cities like Pittsburgh and Boston mirror San Francisco in terms of desolation and overgrown foliage.

To Matt Reeves’ credit, he also refrains from the need to have an action sequence every five minutes as if he had to fill a quota. If you feel antsy about not seeing the apes do something really wild, just wait until the thrilling climax where you’ll be treated to a sequence that is colossal and frightening at the same time. It’s a little scary that there are moments throughout the film where we find ourselves rooting for the apes instead of the humans. The apes are the better species, clearly, and it just further illustrates the notion that if we continue down the path we’re on we will continue to de-evolve.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of those rare sequels that is vastly superior. It elevates the basis of its predecessor with a more engaging story, and even goes as far to set up what we got in some of the earlier Apes movies (i.e., humans in cages). Moving forward in time ten years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes we see the apes have developed their own idea of what they are. Remember, “Ape don’t kill ape.” However, this is all a by-product of Caesar’s leadership. Without his influence the community may have become exposed if Koba had been the alpha ape instead.

It may not be on the level of The Dark Knight or The Empire Strikes Back, in terms of genre sequels pushing the narrative forward to unparallel heights, but I’m positive that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the best in the series. These apes aren’t dirty, they’re magnificent.

Director: Matt Reeves
Writer(s): Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver; Based on characters created by Jaffa and Silver
Notable Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Kodi Smit-McPhee

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