When a prequel to Planet of the Apes was first announced, it seemed like yet another cynical cash in. Yet Rise of the Planet of the Apes tried its hardest to prove everyone wrong with top notch visuals, acting, and score. Although its eventual finale made it seem more like a reboot of Harry and the Hendersons than Planet, it was a good step in the right direction despite its problems.
Which is why Dawn of the Planet of the Apes sticks out so much. Could a sequel accomplish what its predecessor didn’t? Could it finally live up to the technological advances of the first? It turns out, I had no reason to worry. Dawn far exceeds Rise, and it’s the rare sequel that even makes the original film a better experience.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes definitely did not make a monkey out of me.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Director: Matt Reeves
Release Date: July 11, 2014
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place ten years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The disease teased in that finale, now dubbed the “Simian Flu,” has whittled the human race down to a few pockets of broken civilization. Caesar (Andy Serkis), his wife and two sons, and tribe of apes have now grown into a society living peacefully just outside San Francisco. When the apes unexpectedly run into a group of humans led by a man named Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and find a pocket of humans still alive, tensions begin to rise as a war lies on the horizon.
While I found most of Rise of the Planet of the Apes enjoyable, I didn’t like how the darkness of the greater theme at hand clashed with the goofy and direct dialogue. The villains were cartoonish, Caesar’s first words were less explosive thanks to the dumb things that came before, and James Franco was the only human worth watching. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has far less of these problems. It’s a sequel in which you can immediately see the results of a few changes. The most distinct change is the lack of humans to muddy up the dialogue. With less humans, we get quality time with the apes. And boy, have they evolved in more ways than one.
Once again, Andy Serkis brings a powerhouse performance. His motion capture of an older, fiercer Caesar is striking. Each screech, phrase, and breath that comes out of Caesar is dealt with a heavy weight. It’s perfect for a leader ape, and it’s definitely why the silent, apes-only scenes in the introduction are welcome. But Serkis isn’t the only standout. Every other motion actor seems to step up their game (or at least has more to do now that the apes have increased intelligence). Toby Kebbell as Koba is marvelous. Their eventual conflicting ideologies lead to an impressively acted finale as the war teased throughout the film is delivered beautifully. Dawn is the argument for motion capture films in the future. A field once dominated by schlock like Avatar, now has a much better champion.
Not only is Dawn well acted, its plot moves at a well managed pace. When I saw the film’s run time clocked in at just over two hours, I thought I was in for another bloated Summer blockbuster. But these apes are smarter than I, so the film manages to balance the explosive set pieces necessary for a Summer film while providing enough substance to make those events matter. Sure some things feel more out of place than others (for instance, Gary Oldman who has a middling performance because he’s given so little to do with his character), the apes are getting a little close to the uncanny valley, and some of the dumbed down dialogue returns (“You know everyone looks up to you?”), but most of these flaws seem minimal when you’re swept up in all of the apes going apesh*t.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is strong, visually compelling, and full of political intrigue (hilariously enough). It hits all of the expected beats of Summer blockbusters, but does so in a way that the audience isn’t treated like a bunch of animals. You’re not going to see a better film this Summer, and it’s certainly going in my “Best of 2014” list.
In fact, seeing Dawn made me want to re-watch the original film again. If only to see the results of the events here. I’m sure the final film in the trilogy will blow me away too.
If you’ve read my reviews in the past, it must be jarring to read the overt praise I have for Dawn, but I can’t help myself. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a spectacular ride and I never want to get off.