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“Dawn” shines hope on weak summer

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" owns the box office
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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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The long-awaited sequel to the unexpected summer hit performs the rare feat of actually surpassing the quality of its predecessor. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is not only the best movie of the summer but it’s the best science fiction adventure to hit theaters since Steven Spielberg’s spellbinding “Minority Report.” Great science fiction is hard to find, most often playing up the outlandish special effects with the unfortunate effect of making fare more akin to monster horror than anything else. Director Matt Reeves though pairs jaw-dropping effects with more heart than anything seen on screen in some time.
Taking place a decade after “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Dawn” shows us how evolved the apes have become while the remaining human race has almost devolved with its loss of electrical power. The humans, led by the always-great Gary Oldman and the surprisingly heartfelt Jason Clarke, must venture to a dam located in the mountains in hopes of bringing electrical power back to their dystopian city. This is the source of the film’s conflict, as the apes, in an effort to simply survive in a peaceful society, inhabit that very mountain and understandably still distrust the human race.
The ape society is, in a word, incredible. The group, led by the amazing Andy Serkis as Caesar and Toby Kebbell as the rebellious Koba, creates a familial unit so relatable one forgets that these characters are not human at all. Serkis truly deserves more credit come awards season for his work; his face may not be seen onscreen but his skill and his heart resonate long after the credits stop rolling.
What makes “Dawn” one of the greats of its genre though is in its writing. Even though it’s about talking apes who can use machine guns and ride horses it never feels out of place or corny. Cleverly, the apes are depicted as an indigenous, tribal people. They love as we love, trust as we trust, and hate as we hate. Caesar wants nothing but peace for his family while the villainous Koba, under the pretense of distrust towards the humans, really wants to stage a coup and have all the power for himself. Caesar says it best by the films end when he reiterates that he thought apes were better than humans when they are in fact very much the same. Both groups have that innate distrust of “them,” the outsiders, and will do anything to save their own, even without actually trying to form a bond instead. This fear and paranoia and hunger for power leads to war that cannot be avoided when neither group is capable of fully trusting the other.
This film captures beautifully the idea of what it really means to be human. That self-awareness and high degree of intelligence, if given to other species, makes them as human internally as possible, even if they do have hairy backs. “Dawn” masterfully creates a dystopian world that makes sense and never seems too over the top. What grounds the film are the quiet moments: when Oldman’s Ipad finally turns on and he once again sees pictures of his long deceased family, of Caesar watching a brief video of the now dead man who raised him. These scenes are so crucial to creating realistic characters in a harsh and futuristic world; the setting may be out of this world but the characters are very much of this one. That is why this is easily the movie of the summer.