In 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes became the biggest pleasant surprise of the summer. It was a fantastic new take on the worn out mold of the previous films, and breathed new energy with new concepts behind it. Naturally, with its sequel, we all became ecstatic for how it would continue the new story, and for a summer movie season that has finally started to show some great life as of recent, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is by far one of the best films not just of the summer, but of the year in general.
Ten years after the events of the first film, mankind is all but extinct, with a select few humans in hiding, while the apes take conquest of the surrounding forests. Eventually, desperation forces some of the humans to rely on the help of the apes in order to preserve their colony, and provide electricity through a dam in the apes’ territory. However, treachery begins to arise in so-called friends, and with tensions bubbling to their boiling point, it could lead both humans and primates into all out war.
One reason I consider Sci-Fi to be my favorite film genre is that it allows for fascinating ideas to mesh with the imaginative worlds they create, creating powerful allegories for real world events, yet wielding a sense of timelessness to them. Dawn of the Apes is no exception, taking clear influence from Shakespearean and Roman tragedies, and meshing them with spectacular character development and thematic concepts. The film has several great core concepts, such as the line between animalism and humanism, peace and personal morals and beliefs compromised and governed by fear, as well as commentary on gun control. One advantage this sequel has over the original is that the human characters, this time around, are leaps and bounds ahead of the ones in the previous film. Actors such as Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman are given substantially better material to work with than the human actors in the previous film, although, Oldman does still tend to feel underused.
Regardless of this, the apes are still the stars of the show. Now practically a pioneer for motion capture performances, Andy Serkis gives what is likely to remain the best performance of the summer in this film. His performance is so genuine, fragile, conflicted, commanding, wondrous, and even downright heartbreaking. Obviously, a lot of thanks for his seamless transformation is owed to Weta Digital, who have once again shown themselves to be the master of motion capture technology (and provide what may very well be among the best visual effects work of the 21st century, if not of all time), but that wouldn’t have been enough without the best possible performer to express the various emotions of the character. Eventually, you just stop being amazed by the effects and just buy into the illusion that the film creates. Thinking back on it, I don’t think of Andy Serkis mixed with CGI. All I see is a living, breathing chimp. Not to be short-changed is Toby Kebbell as Caesar’s own Brutus-esque traitor, Koba, whose hatred for humanity puts him at odds with Caesar’s comparatively gentle stance on them, and makes him a ferocious, frightening, and utterly horrifying scene-stealer.
The whole film is very excellent in how it allows us to form such close bonds with the characters, and that provides one of its best strengths. The film knows not to play its best cards too early, and once we finally have made a connection with these characters, it then brings the action sequences in intense fashion (Godzilla, take note). These are easily the best action sequences of the year, because they have an underlying feeling of suspense and always carry staggering stakes and consequences, from the Apes’ raid on the human colony (complete with a stunning 360 tracking shot from aboard a tank), all leading up to the emotionally fueled and heart-stopping climax. Seriously, the film is so suspenseful that I found myself unable to breathe for long stretches. It also doesn’t hurt that the film is designed to visual perfection. Michael Seresin’s cinematography is both gritty and intimate, the production design by James Chinlund lets us absorb and be sucked into the bleak but still beautiful world established, and Michael Giacchino provides a fitting tribute to composer Jerry Goldsmith with his xylophone heavy score.
Sequels are often looked at in a cynical fashion, and I can absolutely see why, but for what it’s worth, 2014 has been a stellar year for installments that improve upon their predecessors, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes marks no exception. With two films THIS good and powerful under their belt, I can only imagine the possibilities for what they’ll do with the next installment.
****1/2 / *****