Where “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” was a pleasant much-better-than-expected surprise, it’s sequel (the sequel to the prequel after the [failed*] reboot of the franchise) has a much higher standard to live up to.
Set ten years after the events of the previous film, “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” picks up after the total worldwide collapse of human civilisation. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow apes have settled in the Muir Woods north of San Francisco and developed a thriving colony based on a hierarchical hunter/gatherer society. Meanwhile, a group of humans genetically immune to the devastating simian flu have established a fledgling settlement in the ruins of San Francisco but desperately need power to sustain their commune. The key to that power is a hydroelectric dam deep within the apes’ territory. Although first contact almost goes is potentially disastrously wrong, cooler heads prevail and Caesar enters into an uneasy truce with the humans, hoping for peace. But on both sides, there are those who cannot forgive and forget and whose hawkish instincts for self-preservation will bring both populations to the brink of annihilation.
Director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”, “Let Me In”) brings a sombre aesthetic to this post-apocalyptic tale of warring species and the resultant tone is unrelentingly grim and serious, with precious few moments of levity to alleviate the sense of impending doom and genocidal stakes. The film looks spectacular, with the derelict San Francisco and the ape citadel brimming with rich attention to detail.
The motion capture performances of the actors and the special effects people who translate them are astonishing, and it’s a testament to the abilities of those involved that the movie actually feels more vibrant, alive and engaging when there are few or no humans on screen and the apes dominate the proceedings. In terms of individual performances, would somebody please just give Andy Serkis a Best Actor Oscar already? The guy is phenomenal in these roles, but it seems award panels are blind to the skill required to bring these characters to life if the actor themselves doesn’t appear onscreen (similar to Scarlett Johansson missing out for her brilliant turn in “Her) and his Caesar is a powerhouse of a performance, dominating the film and the cast around him. By contrast, the human actors are something of a let-down, not helped by a deeply biased script with the richness of the characterisation of the apes is in stark contrast to the mostly underwritten and underdeveloped humans. Jason Clarke is a fine actor, but he feels lightweight and ineffectual as the leading man here, certainly nowhere near the level of gravitas and presence of his predecessors who include Charlton Heston, Mark Wahlberg and James Franco (who appears in a brief cameo by virtue of a salvaged video camera recording). Keri Russell is adequate in a disposably clichéd ‘compassionate doctor’ role while despite the trailers making it seem anything but, Gary Oldman’s role is tantamount to a glorified cameo.
The story itself is, beat for beat, entirely predictable and there are zero twists or surprises than can’t be seen coming a mile away. However the entire production is so well put together and so spectacularly tense to watch that the grim inevitability of the way events unfold actually becomes an asset in delivering this downbeat, dystopian future. For a film franchise so steeped in allegory, and which it could be argued played its very best allegorical hand at the end of the original film back in 1968, it’s refreshing to find that there’s still a strong focus on intelligent, serious sci-fi as metaphor at play here. Channelling a very contemporary ideological clash between the hawks and the doves on both sides of the conflict, the film finds time to comment on the nature of leadership, the rule of law, the murkiness and compromise necessary for diplomacy and the dangers of home-grown terrorism.
Not a typical, uplifting summer blockbuster by any stretch of the imagination, “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” is a compelling, intelligent and serious science fiction film, expertly weaving humanity’s tendency towards violence and destruction into a tragic clash of cultures in the ruins of the world we live in now.
* – I actually really enjoy Tim Burton’s 2001 “Planet Of The Apes”. Well, apart from the last ten minutes, obviously. If that film had just ended as the spaceship rocketed into space…