Directed by: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell
If there ever was a franchise that had no chance of being good again it was Planet of the Apes. The original film is great in a campy way and the sequels progressively slid downhill. Then Tim Burton took a stab at the franchise in the 90’s and failed miserably. Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is easily one of his worst films ever. Then in 2011 lesser known director Rupert Wyatt brought us his own spin on the franchise with Rise of the Planet of the Apes and it ended up being really good. That film featured James Franco and Andy Serkis in motion capture mode as Caesar the ape. So the torch was passed to Matt Reeves to continue the franchise. Reeves himself isn’t a household name but he did previously direct the stellar remake of Let Me In and the found footage riff on giant monsters Cloverfield, so he’s done good work.
This sequel picks up sometime after the events of the first film and we learn that the human race is in a shambles with a majority of people dead from the virus that was born in the first film. Caeser is older now and has a family of his own living with the apes in the forest. The first act of the film almost plays like a sci-fi nature doc and that’s a compliment. We learn what has happened to the apes in the passage of time and we are introduced to new ape characters and re-introduced to old ones. In the opening act the film is literally awe inspiring in its beauty. The apes are stunning to behold with subtle character mannerisms perfectly rendered with motion capture and fur and skin looking as photorealistic as you could hope for. It doesn’t take long though to simply settle into the fact that these are characters with personalities and emotions and motivations rather than cool CG renders. The acceptance of what’s on screen is just seamless and it doesn’t distract from the drama being played out on screen.
Then after we know the apes inside out a band of humans show up on a mission and there’s mistrust from both species but Caeser remembers the humans that brought him to life so he has a soft spot for all humans. These humans need access to the ape controlled woods for a noble reason but as you might expect years of hatred keeps everyone from being noble. The apes too aren’t noble; there are those that harbor fear and hatred of the humans too. So often these sorts of films will simply make one side good and one side bad but this movie says that with intelligence at any level comes complexity and imperfection. The apes got the best of humanity, and the worst.
Stuck in the middle of the drama and action that inevitably follows are Caesar with his family and closest allies, and three humans Malcolm, Ellie, and their son. These characters do have noble intentions, and the chemistry and connections they all build together lead to some of the stronger scenes in the film. The film is mostly humorless and darkly rendered. The story makes the future seem bleak with the complexities of intelligence doomed to keep man and ape from co-existing. Caesar has a very strong bit of dialogue on this subject in the last act that’s quite powerful. Following the Star Wars formula of film this installment in the apes franchise definitely fits The Empire Strikes Back. The first film like Star Wars was an action packed origin story with many moments of levity. Like Empire Dawn is a darker middle story. So in the third film will there be carbonite?
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes literally gives up the goods on everything you could want in a sequel, more epic scope of action, deeper character development, and fixes to mistakes from the first film. The only two missteps in this film, and they are small ones, is that it’s slightly bloated in the middle and Gary Oldman’s character is extremely underused. How do you bring in an actor as strong as Gary Oldman and then push him so far into the background. He does get a moment to shine but only one. Keri Russell is great in the film playing her character understated and well extremely human. Jason Clarke is great in the film and his scenes with Andy Serkis are the glue that binds the film.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is just simply better than you think it’s going to be. Go see it, it’s a spectacle to behold. Skip the 3-D though, there’s nothing special there.