There can sometimes be an uphill battle faced going into movies that heavily rely on CGI and non-human character screen time, particularly for viewers and critics who are endlessly fascinated with the human condition and its many progressions and pitfalls throughout time.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the eighth film in the hominoidea-laden franchise, is perhaps the best of the lot. It drifts its audience into its alternate universe with ease. Before one can cynically dismiss its storyline as inane science fiction, one is enraptured by the thrilling, terrifying, incredibly realistic world in which apes have taken over, and by the struggling battle for life faced by the few human beings who remain—i.e. those who were immune to the ALZ-113 virus and its fallout, (being the widespread disease among humans and increased intelligence among apes that led to this reality).
The events preceding the contents of this film were laid out in its Rupert Wyatt-directed 2011 predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which was the film set to re-launch fan fervor for the series that started with the 1968 film Planet of the Apes, originally inspired by the 1963 French novel La Planète des Singes by Pierre Boulle. In Rise, there was a felt sense that this series definitely still had life in it, and although the first half of the movie drags, once the film's focus shifts away from its moderately interesting lead, Will (James Franco), and his completely dull, two-dimensional girlfriend, Caroline (Frieda Pinto), and the screen is rightfully dominated by the surreal and brilliant CGI creation that is Caesar, a chimpanzee Will raised from birth and eventual leader among the apes. Then is when movie magic gold has been struck. With that film having made $481 million at the worldwide box office, there was no question that more were thankfully to come.
Set ten years after the events of Rise, in the 2014 Matt Reeves-directed Dawn, there is presented a semi-rare case where the sequel is most certainly better than its forefather (which, yes, technically was just another in the line of the franchise, but felt as a new beginning/reboot, rather than a sequel to its own predecessors). Reeves captures something that can only be described as a truly thrilling ride one is continuously surprised, scene by scene, to be on. The movie works its pacing out very well, starting off in a lull, where the audience is privy to the inner workings of the ape kingdom that has been set up in the Muir Woods on the outskirts of San Francisco, California (and by this representation, in a presumably similar fashion in other realms around the world). This first twenty-odd minutes really does for the movie a large favor, as it accomplishes world-building in a manner that is quiet but not boring, informative but not didactic. It doesn't feel at all expected that this is how the movie would begin, and for newcomers to the series, who have not seen anything heretofore of it, the movie lays out a reality not at all difficult to buy into or by which to become intrigued. That is perhaps what is most striking about the film as a whole: it presents a solid stand-alone story, the enjoyment of which no former knowledge of the previous installments is needed, yet it fits alongside them naturally as well. This is not an easy feat for installations to series with preconceived notions or built-in recognitions that audiences often have going into viewing them.
Enough cannot be said for the great CGI master of our time, Andy Serkis. Obviously, a very large team of people it does indeed take to bring something like the character of Caesar to the screen, and each and every one of those people needs to be praised and commended for his or her extraordinary work. Also, it is amazing what computers can do. But his human component to the acting, the facial expressions, the body movements, the absolute devotion to truly making this ape a fully formed individual is nothing short of breathtaking. He perfected this art playing the cunning J. R. R. Tolkien creation, Gollum, in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies, and herein his work is no less phenomenal.
Due to his and others' acting and again the tremendous special effects teams, there is no doubt in anyone's mind that these apes are real; whether they're seen storming across the screen in battle-frenzied rage or somberly lamenting the illness of a sickly pregnant one among them, their struggles, joys, frustrations, emotions, and actions are riveting. It feels disturbing, almost, in the moments throughout watching these creatures that one has to step back and remember: wait a second, they're not people! What does this mean for humanity as a whole? What is this story symbolically trying to inform us of? Is this supposed to represent a loss of humanity within our own selves in our real world that we have brought on through realities like war and abuse and selfishness and intolerance? Questions such as these swirl through one's mind in the theatre seat as the adventure of this chillingly all-too-real-feeling tale unfold.
The story itself is in part a relatively simple tale of dissent from within, where Koba (Toby Kebbell), a bonobo who harbors anti-human resentment for the way he was treated in labs back before the science had gone wild, eventually rises up against Caesar. It's practically Shakespearean. He orders the apes move in to attack the remaining humans, somewhat loosely led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, looking very much like a more haggard version of his Commissioner Gordon self here), living in the remains of their city. Before the uprising, though, the main human contingent of the film, Malcom (Jason Clarke), Ellie (Keri Russell), Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and a few others journey into the Muir Woods where the apes dwell and seek to re-establish electrical power in and to their city by fixing a dam located in the apes' territory. The interaction between the people and the apes is intriguing, as there is humaneness as well as mistrust in different characters on both sides. It is as though they are on equal footing, which causes the audience to squirm and to wonder again what to think about these creatures, were such a fiction to be a reality. The focus of the film, much more than in Rise, is on the apes. This creative decision works wholly towards the final product's benefit, as the culture created among the apes is altogether fascinating; despite their being animals, their struggle with the same types of interpersonal problems as their human counterparts makes for an incredible and ponderous cinematic subject matter. Is higher intelligence all that separates us from the animal kingdom of which we are indeed a part?
For a movie nearly entirely about apes, aspects and reflections upon the human condition could not be more relevant. Twentieth Century Fox already made an excellent choice in pulling Matt Reeves for a directorial return. Here's hoping he continues and even furthers the focus on the apes in the coming installment(s) to the franchise. And lastly, did the 3-D greatly enhance the viewing experience? One could take or leave it. Frankly, unless it's Avatar, 3-D is largely unnecessary to the movie viewing experience in general. But movie goers would do well to not pass this flick up whilst it is on the big screen; they most certainly have a high chance of leaving it feeling their 130 minutes was quite well spent.