BLU-RAY REVIEW: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: MATT REEVES / SCREENPLAY: MARK BOMBACK, RICK JAFFA, AMANDA SILVER / STARRING: JASON CLARKE, ANDY SERKIS, TOBY KEBBELL, KERI RUSSELL, GARY OLDMAN, KODI-SMIT MCPHEE / RELEASE DATE: NOVEMBER 24TH
Since Charlton Heston first broke down at the closing twist of Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 classic Planet of the Apes, an adaptation of author Pierre Boulle’s novel, the war between man and monkey has seen many turns. From civil rights protests to the (much mocked) Ape-raham Lincoln statue in the closing moments of Tim Burton’s beautiful looking and sounding but very misjudged 2001 remake. However, after a lag following Burton’s film, hopes were not especially high for Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 prequel/reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, however the film emerged as a brilliantly emotional film about the animal cosmetic industry and took the series back to it’s ideological and theoretical roots. So with that in mind, Matt Reeves’ (Cloverfield) sequel had a task to outdo what came before. Not only does it accomplish that feat, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes rises up as the best film in the franchise since the very first.
We knew from the offset the film would be fun (hell, how can any film with a poster featuring a monkey on horseback with a rifle not be?) but what is shocking is Dawn’s scope, it’s heart, and it’s escalation of events that takes something we know is inevitable and turns it into an unpredictable, gripping, and socially relevant spectacle. The film is set after a viral outbreak in 2016 (associated with the Ape breakout in Rise), named the simian flu, which has all but destroyed the human race. 10 years later, in post-virus California, lead ape Caesar (Serkis), his family, and his primate society live day by day in the Muir Woods. One day, though, they encounter a band of humans they thought extinct, and these people need to solve their power crisis for the survivors of the city and it is up to the compassionate Malcolm (Jason Clarke) to negotiate with Caesar. However, war seems inevitable from both sides, as the old wounds between man and ape reopen.
Dawn, like many other films, features an array of special effects wizardry, but unlike many movies these effects do not overpower or take precedent over the story and characters but instead compliment them. The pioneering motion-capture (in a mere 3 years) has leaped further than you could ever imagine, to the point where shots within this gorgeously assembled sequel are photo-realistic. If ever there was a film to finally extinguish that persistently smug notion that motion-capture acting is not “proper acting”, this is that film. The effects, the CG, and the action are beautifully captured, of course, but never is Dawn more effective than when it is more thoughtful or meditative. The opening 15-20 minutes of this film are among the bravest in a mainstream film since the likes of WALL-E, with the film’s early moments being entirely reliant on sign language, expressions, and subtitles.
This film has a firm grasp of psychology, with Bomback, Jaffa and Silver’s sweeping story commenting on cultural angst, the inevitability of war and the corrupting power of revenge. Serkis shines again as lead ape Caesar and has developed the character into a devoted, wise, and fair leader. The human cast is also given a slightly less nasty streak than in the last film, with terrific performances from Jason Clarke as Malcolm, a man willing to work for peace, alongside Keri Russell as Malcolm’s wife Ellie and Kodi-Smit McPhee as his son Alexander. Even the extreme characters, like Gary Oldman’s authoritative leader Dreyfus, are not bad people but desperate people trying to survive. Then you have the film’s superb apes characters, that are sensitive and memorable - if you don’t leave with a soft spot for wise Orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) or Ceaser and Cornelia’s (Judy Greer) impressionable but good-hearted son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), you have been watching with ape hands over your eyes! Although the show stealer is Toby Kebbell as the brutal ape Koba (part Darth Vader, part Lion King’s Scar), who has a tragic resonance behind his hate, and Kebbell’s powerful performance gives the film its central and rather unexpected conflict between he and Serkis’ equally impressive Caesar. In the end, Dawn is essentially a film about the evil of man’s past affecting earth’s present and what more lingering message can a film possibly display?
There are countless lingering shots, set pieces, and cinematography within Reeves’ superbly paced sequel. Michael Giacchino’s score rumbles through the forests and the impressively overgrown and desolate Chicago imagery, and for all the potentially silly moments that could have come from a film that features Apes with guns, on horses or attacking a tank, the film never loses tone or sight of the story. Come the climatic finish, you are left thinking the best is yet to arrive and that is truly exciting because if something tops this, then this new Apes series deserves its place in history. Simply put, if Rise was A New Hope, this is Empire Strikes Back. A masterpiece of blockbuster and like Empire this is not a film of happy endings but it is not a bore or a complete downer either. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the best film to come out of Summer 2014 and will leave you enthralled, shocked and eager for more. War, what is it good fur? (Allow us one!).
Special Features: Audio commentary with Matt Reeves / Eight featurettes / Deleted scenes with optional commentary / Gallery
Expected Rating: 8 out of 10