The spectacular new science fiction adventure film “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the kind of movie Steven Spielberg would be making today if he were born thirty years later. The movie takes us on an adrenaline filled emotional roller-coaster, creating epic imagery and intimate character moments that stay with us long after the final credits and the strains of Michael Giacchino’s moving score have faded. This is brilliant, tight, cinematic storytelling at its finest.
“Dawn” picks up ten years after the events in “Rise” where Caesar was ripped away from his makeshift nuclear family and sent to what was essentially an ape prison run by a cruel warden. There Caesar used his intelligence and gift for language to bring together a core of apes and free them from their human torturers. What is cool about “Dawn” is it brings back that initial core of characters, including Cornelia (now Caesar’s mate), Maurice, Rocket, and Koba (the scarred bonobo from the Gen-Sys lab). We see how they have grown and developed over the past ten years, raising families and making a peaceful life for themselves in an ape city of sorts in the forest of Northern California.
Screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and director Matt Reeves have done a fantastic job creating a fully-realized dystopian world making great use of San Franciso landmarks and their collective imaginations are brought to life with staggering realism by Weta Digital—a visual effects studio seemingly without limits. But it is not the incredible effects and riveting action that makes “Dawn” such a great film. It is the strong story, crisp plot, and unforgettable characters we get know, most of all Caesar himself.
A wonderful, iconic cinematic character such as Caesar is a result of imaginative writing and strong directing to be sure. But make no mistake there is an actor who is making this all work. Andy Serkis deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance as Caesar in “Dawn”. Yeah, you heard me. Motion capture or not, it is a transformative piece of acting that should be rewarded.
The creation of the ape society alone and the complex relationships and politics that exists between the characters would in itself leave most filmmakers bragging for years. But “Dawn” is not content to be just good or even great—it wants to be an all-time classic that people will be watching twenty or thirty years from now. And you know what? They will be, because as this story unfolds it gives us characters to care about and outcomes to root for. When bad stuff happens we feel our hearts break with just as much emotional resonance as the characters on the screen.
It is not a spoiler to say “Dawn” is about a war. It is kind of a re-imagining of “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973) in the same way “Rise” got its inspiration from “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972). What is interesting is that Caesar in “Dawn” faces a similar dilemma to the Caesar in “Battle”. He wants peace. He wants to trust. He wants to see the good in humans because he was raised by a kind human father (Will), grandfather (Charles), and surrogate mother (Carolyn). But Caesar faces opposition from within his own ranks by his second in command “Koba”, a hawkish bonobo who has only experienced sadistic torture and cruelty from humans. As Caesar says in the film, “Koba learned hate from humans.” There is a terrific prequel novel out right now, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Firestorm” that tells the life story of Koba and is a must read for fans. Koba watched his mother get beaten to death, had his eye burned out with a cigarette by a sadistic owner who abused him to “perform” on a TV show, and was subjected to years of invasive experimentation in a lab. The more we learn about Koba, the more we can see things from his point of view.
But in the end, hate can only lead to destruction and more hate. Caesar understands this. So does his human friend Malcom (Jason Clarke) and his wife Ellie (Kerri Russell). Racists like Carver (Kirk Acevedo) do not understand this. Neither do warmongers like Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman) and Koba (Toby Kebbell).
See what I mean? That is the kind of meaningful character motivation and interplay we get in “Dawn”. Intelligent, socially relevant commentary about the nature of humans and their cruel treatment and disregard of other species, and of each other.
It is hilarious hearing critics go out of their way to not to praise the film too much, lest they have their critic elitist snobbery card revoked. So I will say what they will not.
Bottom line: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a modern masterpiece of epic, character-driven, genre storytelling. The visuals are staggering to be sure and the action breath-taking. But, like its 2011 predecessor, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a movie with heart. It stands alongside “The Godfather Part II”, “Aliens” and “The Empire Strikes Back” as one of the greatest sequels of all time. It is the best film of 2014 so far.