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'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' review: Last of the Capuchins

Jason Clarke has monkeys on his back.
Jason Clarke has monkeys on his back.
20th Century Fox

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


Directed by: Matt Reeves

Starring: Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Andy Serkis, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Kirk Acevedo

The Plot: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens with the gradual extinction of almost all human life on planet Earth. (Spoiler Alert!) As we circle the globe news broadcasts fill us in on what's occurred in the ten years since the conclusion of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Basically our species has been stricken with what the CDC has termed "Simian Flu," and every pillar our society was built upon - government, family, financial institutions, religion - has been kicked out from underneath us, leaving mankind dwindling and alone in the dark. In a cool effect, the golden glow of the mega-metropolitan sprawls on Earth disintegrate into inky blackness.

The Earth returns to the twin phases of natural dark and light. Once again, it belongs to the animals.

The Film: In 1992 Michael Mann adapted James Cooper's Last of the Mohicans for the big screen. In Mann's movie the story of Hawkeye and Chingachgook opens with an elk hunt. Similarly, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes also begins with an elk hunt - with one minor tweak. In a wild scramble for meat screaming chimpanzees swing through old growth conifer forest over a herd of fleeing elk. Apes rain from the sky as frantic bulls and cows are wrangled and brought down with spear and bola throws. It's a thrilling sequence to watch. In these opening minutes of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Matt Reeves is pretty much spelling it out for the audience that this is most definitely NOT going to be anywhere near as tame and subtle as Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Rise is a film about cognition - Dawn is a film about survival in the face of extinction.

While Dawn of the Planet of the Apes could have very easily been a schmaltzy, B-film version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, ("WHAT IS THE LAW!?") Matt Reeves chooses a completely different - less Mike Bay - tack for this sequel. I bring up the Last of the Mohicans connection, not just because the two movies open the same way, but because Dawn of the Planet of the Apes shares similar themes with James Cooper's story about Natives and Colonials. This isn't a talking monkey movie - it's a film about peace treaties and the necessary boundaries two tribes build together while having absolutely zero trust in each other. It's a film about hope and desperation and freedom.

Finally, it's a film about the inevitability and terrors of war.

We spend much time with Caesar's tribe of apes as they take their first, shaky steps toward building a legitimate society. All those chimps, gorillas, and orangutans we met in the primate shelter in Rise of the Planet of the Apes have developed into builders, warriors, teachers, fathers, mothers, and leaders, in the ten years between the two films. Most communicate through sign language, and if you're of that miserable subset of American popcorn jockey who bypasses foreign films because you don't like reading your movies - Dawn has enough subtitles to qualify as an import. These apes have much to say to each other.

Meanwhile the human faction - lead by the wonderful Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman - have been trying to scrape together something resembling a structured society in the vacant streets and buildings of San Francisco. Both species are at a critical point in their existence - one society in the early stages of development, one in the malaise of decline. There is peace between the two tribes, if only because it's been so long since they've encountered each other they almost think of their counterparts as urban legends.

While Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a decent beginning to the franchise, it sort of felt like a Sam Raimi movie in that it featured caricatures. Outside of Caesar, there isn't much depth to the rest of the character gallery in Rise. Matt Reeves, on the other hand, has built a cottage industry out of making monster movies feel oddly intimate. (Cloverfield, Let Me In) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes fits right in with his repertoire. What was a simple - but feasible - collage of personalities in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Reeves has taken under his wing and developed into real, flesh and blood beings.

Rupert Wyatt may have given the Apes a voice, but Reeves has somehow performed the not-so-insubstantial miracle of giving these CG primates hearts and souls.

One of my favorite moments in the first film is when the scientists at Gen-Sys are handing out medication to the chimpanzees and the camera pulls back to reveal one long, hairy arm already hanging out in the hallway - palm up - ready to receive its medicine. This is the first time we're introduced to Koba and Koba's mangled physiognomy. It's the spookiest scene in the film. Though we may wonder why anyone in their right mind would inject a chimpanzee as evil-looking as this one is with brain-boosting juice, we may have also grown giddy at the future prospects for such a gnarled animal gaining full cognitive abilities. Little happens with Koba in the first film, but in Dawn he steps up the plate to become something much more complicated and terrifying than I think we were expecting him to be.

Koba is an absolutely stunning piece of work.

Caesar should - and rightly so, given Andy Serkis's brilliant performance underneath the CG camouflage - get most of the attention from the public and press, but Koba's story is every bit as exhilarating and compelling. Like the Huron villain Magua in Last of the Mohicans, Koba is a ferocious adversary - and something of a trixter. He's learned over a lifetime of clinical trials (the origin of all his scars) and mistreatment at the hands of human beings in labs that there is little worth salvaging in the species. He's also learned that humans have the propensity to underestimate the intelligence of his kind. In that respect he's eerily reminiscent of the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. We are very aware of the lethal capabilities that he keeps bridled behind the mask he presents to his competition - once released, Koba has a wild, viscous abandon applaudable to all zealots of anarchy and terror. It's a fascinating portrait of intellect and savagery. As is this film.

The Verdict: Vintage Apes fans should crack a smile when they first hear a xylophone enter the mix of Michael Giacchino's score for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - if that smile isn't already there anyway. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a significant step-up from its predecessors. It's a Summer blockbuster with strength, character, and a good head on its shoulders. All sequels should be built with the skill and care that this film has. Don't miss it.

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