In our era of big budget cinema spectacle, story and character often take a back seat to bombastic special effects. But when all those elements occasionally coalesce, we get something that isn’t just escapism, but that speaks to the human condition.
It may seem odd to mention ‘human condition’ in praising the new film ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’, but it is perfectly apropos for the film which takes place 10 years after the events in the excellent franchise reboot ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes.’
But on almost every level, the sequel is an improvement over ‘Rise’, elevating the long running sci-fi series to new heights.
After a quick and efficient title sequence, which shows how the Simian Flu created in the first film wiped out most of humanity, we get an opening sequence allowing some alone time with the apes colony, ruled by Caesar, a compassionate, troubled creature brought to vivid life by the effects teams at WETA, and a touching performance by Andy Serkis. The combination of the creature effects, human performance and the subtle yet effective use of 3-D are nothing short of remarkable.
Caesar’s fellow apes have acclimated to his advanced intelligence as well, able to communicate through sign language, and some, like Caesar, have learned the power of speech.
The opening sequence marvels both the eye and heart; it’s worth noting just how much the special effects have improved from 'Rise', and CGI/Mo-cap effects in general.
Caesar has tried hard to build an ape community free from the heartache and tragedy that he learned from humanity; “Home, family, future”, is his simple yet heartfelt motto.
Unfortunately for him, there’s one remaining pocket of humanity hankering for his real estate.
A small band of human survivors have holed up in San Francisco. The group, who are immune to the virus, have another problem; a dwindling power supply. If they can just access the dam adjacent to Caesar’s home in the Muir Woods, then they might have a future too. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a member of the group learns just how intelligent and benevolent Caesar is, and the two see each other as equals. Both have families, and an empathetic bond is formed.
But if you’ve seen any ‘Apes’ films, you know the uneasy truce between man and ape is in ever-present danger of collapse, due to the less trusting souls that exist in both parties. The human leader is Dreyfus, played by Gary Oldman, a former police chief who blames the virus-related deaths of his family squarely on the apes. And in Caesar’s camp, there is Koba (played with ominous torment by Toby Kebbel) the scarred chimpanzee still broodingly bitter about the scientific atrocities that were inflicted upon his body. And when he sees the amount of firepower the humans have in their arsenal, he feels compelled to react in kind, which leads into epic battle scenes with Caesar fighting to regain control before both sides are obliterated.
Director Matt Reeves replaced ‘Rise’ director Rupert Wyatt for ‘Dawn’ and he makes his own unique stamp on the material, aided by the wonderfully, moody cinematography of Michael Ceresin, and the rich, evocative score of Michael Giacchino.
In many sci-fi series, the second chapter is always the darkest, and ‘Dawn’ is certainly a tense and harrowing film. It’s the series ‘Dark Knight’ and ‘Empire Strikes Back’ rolled into one. The ape on human conflict is pulse pounding, and often unbearably suspenseful, with bravura action sequences. But there is a small dose of hope offered at the end, a glint of sun through the darkness.
There’s really only one complaint leveled at the film; the humans in the film seem more like window dressing; it’s the Apes we really care about, and one could watch a film simply involving them and feel resolutely satisfied.
In the end it’s the Caesar/Koba conflict that drives the film, and which brings such a vivid and emotional charge to the picture.
I was moved, awed and enamored with ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.’ The performances by Serkis and Kebbel are truly award worthy, and Reeves has fashioned a tale that feels ripe with modern cultural dilemmas; gun violence, destabilizing regimes, and ecological collapse. It’s the eternal debate of "will we ever get it right before it’s too late?" encapsulated in cinematic form. It’s also high adrenaline entertainment, and the best picture of the year so far. I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.