REVIEW SUMMARY: A worthy sequel to 2011’s reboot of the classic franchise that often surprises with strong characters and a certain amount of insight even as its climax underwhelms.
SYNOPSIS: After a virus has wiped out much of humanity, a surviving population of humans attempts to seek a truce with intelligent apes to help rebuild civilization.
PROS: Often engaging script; well-crafted action sequences; beautifully realized post-apocalyptic landscape, and of course the apes.
CONS: Competent direction from Matt Reeves that takes too few chances after its powerful opening; social commentary on occasion feels forced; bland human characters.
Sometime after Malcolm (Jason Clarke) meets Caesar (Andy Serkis) to establish an interspecies truce so that the last vestiges of humanity occupying the remains of San Francisco might start a dormant hydroelectric dam to power their community, I forgot that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes used the latest motion-capture technology to bring to life the intelligent chimpanzee through Serkis’s movements. Cinema has progressed far from the makeup that brought the simian inhabitants Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes to life in 1968. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes renders Caesar, Koba (Toby Kebbel), Cornelia (Judy Greer), and the other denizens of this sequel to a reboot so seamlessly with its actors and post-apocalyptic setting that the entire movie feels as if it were shot in the uncanniest of valleys. One might encourage potential moviegoers to purchase a ticket simply to marvel at the realizations of this twenty-first century ape planet.
Fortunately, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes offers pleasures beyond the visual, building on 2011’s surprisingly good Rise of the Planet of the Apes to create an effective, if not always stylistically or intellectually innovative, science fiction thriller that occasionally stands above standard summer fare. Unfortunately, the end product, fine though it is, appears to indicate some form of compromise reached during its crafting. The movie’s opening moments, from the breathtaking title sequence (in which news reports detail the spread of the ALZ-113 virus, which increase the intelligence of apes yet kill humans, while the world’s hot zones glow red, then finally dim and go dark) to a hunting expedition conducted by the apes in Muir Woods (which occurs without dialogue), provide glimpses of the world without us filmed with skill and no small artistry. It almost seems a shame when the chimpanzees Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and Ash (Doc Shaw) stumble upon the human Carver (Kirk Acevedo) exploring the woods, thus initiating the main conflict. In a panic, Carver shoots and wounds Ash, leading to a standoff between a team of humans led by Malcolm and apes led by Caesar. At Caesar’s order, the humans leave, returning to a guarded tower where a cluster of humans genetically immune to the virus have established a community. The bonobo Koba, mistreated by humans over a decade ago, convinces Caesar to bring the apes to the human city and demand that humans never enter ape territory again. Malcolm, however, seeks a truce; the hydroelectric dam in ape territory could return humanity to some semblance of pre-ALZ-113 outbreak civilization. The human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) agrees, but gives Malcolm only three days to establish an accord.
The setup established, director Matt Reeves skillfully works the screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver through its paces, though with a professionalism that never becomes genuinely personal. Reeves, who managed to avoid any real backlash with his agreeable if ultimately disposable remake of Let the Right One In, knows how to blend suspense and humor. Often he handles the main action competently, creating suspense with some rather unique camera placement, as when an ape seizes control of a tank. Reeves maintains the point of view of the camera’s spinning turret as the humans within are slaughtered, the tank itself careening into a gate defending a human compound.
And then there are moments when the movie juxtaposes humor and terror. At one point, Koba, in an attempt to learn about an armory at the human encampment, catches a pair of guards armed with automatic rifles off guard by clowning around in the same manner as Clyde in Every Which Way But Loose. Even when Koba snatches up a weapon and waves it, Reeves maintains a lighthearted (though uneasy) touch, until Koba pulls the trigger. These moments of suspense underscore Reeves’s gift for devising crowd-pleasing entertainment, yet, considering the movie’s opening, one cannot help but wonder if some opportunity might have been lost—a wonder exacerbated by the movie’s themes of trust and civilization. As with the 1970s series, the screenplay touches on some social commentary, at times with grace (the tower that human survivors call home symbolizes the rebuilding of human civilization), but on occasion without subtlety. When Koba devises a scheme to attack the human’s encampment, Caesar reflects on how few differences exist between the two species. Though understandable, the contemplation comes across as forced and leaden.
Summer movies seldom require much mention of cast members, so it perhaps surprises no one that the people in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes often hold little interest. Jason Clarke receives the most screen time, but his Malcolm never sticks into one’s memory, except perhaps because his name might spring from some private joke. Keri Russell expresses concern and some rationality as Ellie, a former CDC nurse and Malcolm’s partner, but never elevates the material above the merely competent. The same could be said of Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Malcolm’s son Alexander well but with little background and less motivation; his talents, used so well in Reeves’s Let Me In, languish here. Gary Oldman tries to establish Dreyfus as something of a sympathetic villain, but winds up gnawing scenery, and toothlessly at that. It matters little, since the actors captured for the ape sequences prove more compelling, both in their motivations and in their emotive abilities. It underscores what ultimately (if one thinks through the movie’s implications) is a very depressing tale indeed, and makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes by turns entertaining and chilling.