Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the best movie of the summer so far. That’s not as high of praise as it should be, this summer has been rife with disappointment, but it’s high praise none the less. It’s not a perfect movie but whatever missteps it has are all ultimately forgivable given how spot on the rest of the movie is.
The story picks up ten years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in which James Franco, in attempting to create a treatment for Alzheimer’s had created a retrovirus which gave intelligence to apes but proved deadly to humans. Caesar now leads a large extended family of apes who live in the mountains above San Francisco who wonder if humans have completely died off yet. Of course they haven’t, but the first 20 odd minutes of film in which we learn about the society they’ve created is pretty amazing to watch. Eventually the apes run across a party of humans who are on their way to an abandoned hydroelectric dam (which happens to be in their territory).
Caesar is unique among the apes in that he remembers that humans have a good side, that they aren’t all cruel. Malcolm, the human leader, is unique among the humans in that he’s not immediately afraid of apes due to lingering anger of the so called “simian flu” which wiped out the world.
Both Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) want to work for a peaceful solution to the problem. Humans need power which can only be supplied by the dam but the apes want nothing to do with the humans. Caesars lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell), a survivor of research lab experimentation and torture, hates humans completely. Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman), the other human leader, is willing to work with the apes but not without stockpiling weapons just in case the apes decide to not work with them.
Where Dawn really succeeds is that by the time all this comes to a head there are no characters who’s motivations aren’t understandable. There are good guys and bad guys on both sides but everyone is relatable and it highlights that sometimes there too many variables and as a result no good ways out of a situation. Another way it succeeds? This movie is an allegory for so many convicts throughout our history but doesn’t hit us over the head with that fact, it just tells a story and trusts us to get it.
The humans in the movie are good. Jason Clarke chalks up another great performance as Malcolm and Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee as his family both shine in their parts as the mirror image of Caesar and his family and the idea that even if leaders do everything right it might still lead to disaster.
The real stars of the show though are Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell as Caesar and Koba. I’m not going to get into the argument of whether motion capture is just “the new makeup” or a reference point for an animator (but it’s certainly somewhere in between) but both characters are more than simple CGI, the humanity (for lack of a better word) behind their expressions, body language, and dialogue is just amazing. The level of quality in the animation is astounding also. Scenes with the apes in the rain in particular, where their fur is wet and matted and tangled, look completely real.
Matt Reeves proves he has a real talent for action directing as well. He makes use of long takes throughout the film but one in particular during the big climactic battle (the one which features machine gun toting apes on horseback) is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen this year.
If there are complaints they’d be that there is a sub plot with Caesar’s wife Cornelia which has mostly been excised from the final film and, if I’m honest, there are more than a few parts that are a bit predictable but none of these things are deal breakers. They’re minor, minor complaints about an otherwise fantastically executed film.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the best film of the summer so far and very likely one of the best blockbusters of the year. It’s well made, the tightly directed, and intelligently written. You should definitely see it on the biggest screen you can find.