Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I had to look back on what I thought about Rise of the Planet of the Apes to remember why I didn’t particularly like it. I suppose that speaks volumes already, doesn’t it? I couldn’t remember much of what happened in it, save for James Franco managing to create an extremely intelligent ape named Caesar (motion capture performance of Andy Serkis). It’s a predictable and forgettable summer action movie with really good special effects. The sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is better in basically every way.

I didn’t even remember that Rise of the Planet of the Apes introduced a virus that basically killed all of the people on earth. Apparently that happened. The “simian flu,” it was called. Not only were the apes, led by Caesar, intelligent and vicious, by the humans were also being killed off by this virus. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place something like a decade later, and begins the film by focusing solely on the apes. We get to observe, passively, how their society operates. It’s much like ours.

Eventually, the apes encounter a group of humans. It turns out that some humans were immune to the virus, and have continued to survive in San Francisco. The apes are in the woods just outside the city. There’s a dam in the apes’ territory that the humans need, as their generators will soon ruin out of fuel, and humans need the power. Technically, the two species are still at war. You can probably see where this is going. Or can you?

You actually might be surprised at the direction Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes. Its story is far more complex and interesting than it had any right to be. For something that will seemingly end in an inevitable clash of clans, there is a considerable build and far more depth than one might expect. Would you believe that the humans and apes don’t initially start fighting? Or that they manage to find a lot of common ground, thanks to a couple of their leaders? Or that the big battle at the end that the trailers are so proud of showing is caused less by genuine hostility and more from misunderstanding and a single, conniving, member of one of the species?

Both species are portrayed in a sympathetic light, at least overall. Individual members are bad, but humans and apes are both good. Sometimes people do bad things because they’re frightened, or not thinking clearly, or are misinformed. The smallest of actions in a time of tension can spark a wildfire. It’s fascinating to watch. The whole film is filled with tension, even when it seems like everyone’s getting along. You just know that one wrong move could begin a war.

From a technical level, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes surpasses its predecessor, and that one already looked incredible. The effects were the highlights of Rise, and they’ve been topped here. That makes sense, given that Dawn is coming out a couple of years later, but the point still stands. If you were impressed with how the apes looked the last time out, you’ll be blown away this go-round. If the entire movie focused on the apes, I don’t think anybody would be disappointed.

The extraordinary motion capture continues to astound. There was some hope that Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar, would receive an Oscar nomination for what he did with Rise. That same talk will exist this time, too. He’s even better here, in large part because of the direction the story takes. Caesar has grown in the years between films. He has a wife, a couple of sons, and is the leader of the apes. He has to communicate almost exclusively non-verbally, and yet because of Serkis’ performance, we always know what he’s thinking and feeling.

Oh, and the action we eventually get is also pretty outstanding. It’s inherently enjoyable to see apes riding on horseback and dual-wielding machine guns. What warm-blooded action fan doesn’t want that? The all-out war that serves as the film’s climax is as enjoyable as one might expect. And because of all the build, interesting characters, and thematic strength, the action means something. Sure, the whole movie could have been comprised solely of action scenes, and that still might have been fun, but it becomes so much better when they’re important and have meaning.

There are a couple of interesting human characters this time, too. The “lead,” if you can call him that, is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who respects and even perhaps admires the apes. Malcolm is married to Ellie (Keri Russell), a nurse, and has a son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The humans are led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who doesn’t want war but has also stockpiled an immense amount of weapons. In addition to Caesar, the apes have Koba (Toby Kebbell), Caesar’s second-in-command, and Maurice (Karin Konoval), a big, lovable, orangutan.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a big improvement over its predecessor. It’s action-packed, has some great characters, contains an impressively deep story, and will resonate far more strongly with audiences. It’ll be difficult to forget, which is something I can’t say about the first one. If this is the direction the Planet of the Apes franchise is taking, color me interested and excited.

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