Reboots and prequels seem to never stop coming, but to the writers and directors of those still to come, take note: this is how to do it right. Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a remarkable achievement in the entertainment category and the intelligence category. James Franco and John Lithgow did a fine job at leading the cast of human characters as well as Andy Serkis providing his typically outstanding motion capture work. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is better in every way.
Unlike the first film in this prequel set of films, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set in a post apocalyptic wasteland that was once San Francisco, which from the first shot gives this a darker and more dangerous tone. Set eight years after the events of Rise, humans are scattered throughout the world huddled in small groups struggling to survive as the apes are steadily becoming the dominant species. But what this film gets right is the fashion in which it shows audience each side. You see the humans who are willing to do anything to protect the existence of their species and you see the apes who are also willing to do anything to protect their existence. Neither of the species want war, but when their paths cross, they have to find a way to trust each other or face the eradication of their race. But there is no good side. There is no bad side. Neither side wants to be in this situation, but due to unwanted circumstances, they have to be. And the way it plays out is brilliant.
Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings, King Kong) once again delivers a strong motion capture performance as Caesar, leading the apes and also serving as their moral teacher. Serkis’ performance here is intimidating, one that makes you feel afraid of his characters’ power, but the script also allows him to layer his performance with a deep emotional current. This is a summer blockbuster, but you’ll be surprised at just how touching and emotionally moving this film really is. It’s a tear-jerker. Also unable to go unmentioned is Toby Kebbell who plays the character of Koba, an ape in Caesar’s group that has intentions that may shock you. He gives an equally brilliant performance. As far as the humans go, Jason Clarke gives a natural performance as the leader of the humans who come into contact with Caesar and what makes his performance so good is the subtlety of it. He never comes off as a “look at me, I’m an actor” kind of performer, but rather a man who really is in this situation. Gary Oldman doesn’t have much to do but he’s as good as always and Kodi Smit-McPhee has a nice small role. The performances are good from both sides, but the apes stand out as the most likable characters.
Rupert Wyatt did a good job at directing Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but I think it was a wise decision to get Matt Reeves to helm this sequel. Having directed Cloverfield and Let Me In, Reeves certainly isn’t a stranger to the world of science fiction. Reeves knows how to film a movie and as I stated earlier this movie feels different from the opening shot. As the camera pulls away from Caesar’s face and you see the look in his eyes there is this feeling of dread and hopelessness that Reeves nails so well. The CGI in the film, paired with the great motion capture performances, are game changing. Closeups of the apes reveal their fur and facial features in stunning detail. I can only imagine what this movie will look like on blu-ray. But it’s not just the look of the film either. There are a couple long takes in the third act of the film that are truly incredible. Nothing against Rupert Wyatt because I thought his work was great in Rise, but Matt Reeves’ direction here is an improvement in action, emotion, and dramatic tension. Also worth noting is the opening shot of the film and the way the camera pulls back compared to the closing shot of the film and the way the camera zooms in. I found it very artistic and inspiring as an aspiring filmmaker myself.
The final thing I want to touch on is the film’s voice. This is a big, explosive, action packed summer blockbuster. But amidst all the explosions and dazzling action sequences is an underlying theme of love and loyalty. The way the apes treat the apes, the way the humans treat the humans, and the way the apes and humans treat each other entertains while watching and once it ends it leaves you thinking about what it means. Why the apes treat the apes this way. What if humans treated other humans this way. It is essentially a social commentary disguised as an action adventure film. A great one at that.
As far as summer blockbusters go, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes basically soars. It’s big, it’s grand, it’s heartwarming, it’s heartbreaking. It has all the essentials of a great summer blockbuster, and delivers on nearly every note. Andy Serkis is brilliant in the role of Caesar and the supporting cast shines as well. But behind all the explosions and action and emotional depth is the underlying message of love, survival, and loyalty. At its core, it’s a social commentary. As of right now, this is the best movie of the 2014 summer movie season.