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‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ review: Hail, Caesar

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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If audiences were impressed by 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, they’ll be floored by the series’ next installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, when it hits theaters on July 11. While Rise served as a highly entertaining and well-executed means of establishing Caesar, it was largely exposition. By contrast, Dawn blasts off almost immediately and never relents. The film features a collection of conflicts that though initially separate and contained, ultimately collide.

The action picks up some 10 years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In the wake of human exposure to the experimental Alzheimer’s treatment that gave Caesar and his pals their smarts, a virus rather unfairly dubbed the “Simian Flu” has swept the globe, laying waste to human populations and leaving their civilizations dilapidated and damaged (get a full rundown on the goings on with this catch-up video). As a result, humans and apes have been preoccupied with their own existence and neither group is entirely sure if the other has even survived. That all changes quite rapidly when a group of humans in search of a dam capable of powering San Francisco when their waning fuel supplies are gone stumble across a band of apes in the woods. Startled, one member of their group shoots an ape, setting in motion the conflicts that span the course of the movie.

Caesar, now with a family, and serving as the proverbial king of the mountain in his growing community of apes wants only peace. He is mirrored in the human population by Malcolm (Jason Clarke). Unlike many of his human counterparts, Malcolm does not fear the apes, but rather is astounded by Caesar, and believes an appeal to Caesar’s better nature can broker a peace between humans and apes. Unfortunately for the pair of them, the likes of Koba (a warlike ape, who suffered much more significantly at the hands of human testing than Caesar) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a vocal leader among the human population, tend to think along different lines. Each purporting the annihilation of the other group and generally warmongering as much as possible.

And so, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes proceeds with multiple conflicts (man vs. man, ape vs. ape, man vs. ape) that ratchet the tension up and render the stakes just about as high as they’ll go. The film is notable for its action, but even more so for the way it elevates that action. In Caesar and Malcolm we are given a pair of heroes, both of whom must grapple with the realization that the peace the fragile peace they are clinging to cannot stand. In this way, Dawn explores human nature and some pretty significant existential questions.

Andy Serkis has long reigned as the king of motion capture and his emotive performance as Caesar will only serve to further his legend. Meanwhile Jason Clarke continues his string of strong turns in strong movies. Keri Russell, Jodi-Smit McPhee and Gary Oldman all have fairly limited screentime, but make the most of it, helping to ground the sci-fi elements of the film with emotional touchstones.

Weta Digital not only brings Caesar and his army to life in fine form, but they must also have played a significant hand in conjuring up the destroyed cityscape of San Francisco and the home that the apes have built for themselves in the woods, both of which are stunning.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the perfect summer blockbuster, but it’s also much more than your average action-fueled escape. The combination of performances, smart (if predictable) plot elements, stunning visuals, tension and action render Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a complete and satisfying epic that leaves the audience anticipating what comes next.

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