Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the second installment of a new rebooted trilogy that began with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The first film ended with a map showing the spread of a man-made retrovirus that proved deadly to humans but did not affect genetically enhanced the apes that were used as lab test subjects. The new film picks up ten years later where we find the remains of the human race facing their twilight while the growing society of advanced apes are experiencing their… you got it… “dawn.”
For the longest time, each species has lived in societies completely separate from one another. The humans, led by the ape-hating ex-cop Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), scratch out a desperate existence while occupying a small section of an abandoned San Francisco. The apes have built their utopia in the Redwood Forest just outside the city. Caesar (a never-better Andy Serkis), the ape who led the simian revolt a decade ago, is now the leader of the ape civilization and father of a small family.
The worlds of the two species collide one day when a small group of humans, led by an engineer named Malcolm (Jason Clarke), heads into the forest in the hopes of reactivating a dam that should help provide power to the city. En route to the dam, the group comes across the apes. While the first encounter goes horribly awry and drives the humans back to the city, Malcolm is determined to get the dam operable and heads back to negotiate a fragile peace with Caesar. Caesar’s actions enrage the human-hating ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) who accuses Caesar of liking humans more than he does apes.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a reboot that few if any were asking for. Even before Tim Burton graced moviegoers with his 2001 misfire, it was pretty much a given that the Apes saga had run out of gas. Imagine this reviewer’s surprise — borderline shock is more like it — when Rise turned out as great as it did. Rupert Wyatt’s origin film was confidently directed, smartly written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and featured Andy Serkis’ phenomenal motion-captured turn as Caesar at its core. Most importantly, Rise brought something new to the franchise that had been lacking since the beginning: genuine emotion and heart.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes builds on the foundation laid by Rise while taking the series into darker, deeper and more exciting territory. Wyatt opted not to direct the new film, which allowed Let Me In director Matt Reeves to step in and take over.
As much as I admired Wyatt’s work on Rise, having him step aside was probably the best thing to happen to this film if not the entire series. There is very little in Dawn of the Apes that doesn’t work, and that is due in large part to just how accomplished Reeves’ directing is. The screenplay from Jaffa, Silver and Mark Bomback takes on a lot of themes: the impact of gun violence and war, the true cost of revenge, the importance of family and of course, tolerance. It’s some heavy-handed content for a big-budget summer event flick and if it is improperly handled, it could turn the movie into something along the lines of an Oliver Stone movie (and no one wants that).
Fortunately, Reeves is no Stone. He approaches the material evenhandedly and with a fair amount of restraint, exploring how each of the themes affects both human and ape while slowly mounting up the tension that leads to the film’s big action-packed third act. In taking the time to intelligently explore these issues through well-defined characters, flawless visual effects and solid performances from its ensemble cast, Reeves gets us to empathize with all the characters — human and ape — good and bad. The fairness that is bestowed upon the characters is yet another facet of the film that is as unexpected and welcomed as its emotional and moral heft.
There have been a couple of big-budget event pics from this summer that have delivered the goods in grand style: Edge of Tomorrow and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Neither of those films, however, makes as much impact as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Not only is it a great science fiction film, it’s simply a great film in general.
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