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Review: 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Rating:
Star4
Star
Star
Star
Star

The sequel to 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” takes the approach of reducing the level of human focus considerably, which I think the movie is all the better for it. This allows Andy Serkis, reprising his role as Caesar, much more screentime and dominance, which was always worked best in the previous film as well.

Stills from 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'
Stills from 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'
Chernin Entertainment
Caesar with a shotgun
Caesar with a shotgun
Chernin Entertainment

It’s set 10 years later and the James Franco virus that made the apes smarter has reduced the world’s population to a fraction of desperate survivors (in the vein of every zombie movie ever). In the meantime, Caesar and his apes have built a home in the forest, creating a large and surprisingly sophisticated village in the trees (it’s not exactly “The Swiss Family Robinson”, but they do their best). They teach their children to sign and even speak while the world outside falls further into ruin and chaos.

There’s a lot of fun to be had watching the apes in their blossoming society, even entirely without the presence of live action actors. The motion capture work is pretty incredible, though this is most evident with Caesar. It’s as much a testament to Andy Serkis’ acting abilities as it is the technical capabilities of this form of computer animation that they can convey such nuance and expression with his CG character, even when he’s not saying anything at all. Of all the apes in the movie, his is the most developed and identifiable. The rest are beautiful visual effects, but none of them have the depth or uncanny talent of Andy Serkis. They play out as fairly two dimensional additions, their only true importance being reactionary to the plot or wholly dependent on the actions of their leader.

The conflict comes from the presence of a large group of heavily armed humans who move into what’s left of San Francisco. They seek to power the dam in the forest so they might have some basic electricity, but enough of them are trigger happy morons so tensions arise quickly when they meet the civilized apes. They are led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who believes he can form an alliance with Caesar for their mutual benefit, and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who’s far more concerned by the ape army and thinks war might be the better answer.

It’d be one thing if the humans were the only villains here, but then there’s Koba (Toby Kebbell). He was the rough and tortured ape from the previous movie that was experimented on for years by his human captors. Now, when he finds an army of them with enough guns to wipe him and the others off the face of the earth, his yearning for vengeance takes over and the cost of his rage no longer matters.

Some of the best parts come from the apes dealing with the uneasy alliance Caesar wants to form with the survivors. He doesn’t share Koba’s blind hatred and fear of them, so their conflicting desires leads to violence and fear among the tribe. The armory only serves to escalate things. The blossoming ape culture is fascinating to watch grow, and the more time spent with them the better as far as I’m concerned. The humans are a smaller part of the story, the focus rarely dwelling on their struggles and concerns. We know that they’ve all lost people and that’s enough backstory for them to have. Much like in the previous entry, they do not hold the same level of interest as the apes.

What’s more interesting is to take the side of the apes, seeing their conflicting viewpoints and how they choose to handle it. The growing divide over whether to support or fight against the remnants of mankind. I anticipate more stories to see the rest of Caesar’s reign and how it develops over time. He’s a truly fascinating character. Visually speaking, the motion capture at work here is among the best I’ve ever seen. I think we’re nearly at that point, especially with performers like Andy Serkis, where they can carry an entire movie. Only time and box office earnings will tell.