Matt Reeves' immaculately crafted 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' takes the franchise to a new level
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 20th Century Fox
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, based on characters created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Toby Kebbell, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Jon Eyez and Karin Konoval
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 10 minutes
July 11, 2014
(out of four)
Of all the accomplishments of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - and there are plenty - perhaps the most surprising is how quickly it gets used to, or gets over, its central premise. By the time the film picks up, apes have long since taken over dominion of the planet from a human race that is on the verge of extinction. The surviving few may be surprised to hear the apes speak - not to mention ride horses into the city, covered in war paint - but they don't really have time to stay that way. More pressing matters - namely, their very survival - are on their mind.
And so, new franchise director Matt Reeves makes it abundantly clear that these apes are no longer a novelty act. He treats them with the exact same level of humanity and care as their human counterparts, and what proceeds is not so much a conflict between species but between cultures. Presenting the apes and humans as equals is the film's starting point.
What I kept coming back to as I watched Dawn is that it's essentially a postapocalyptic Western. It isn't a hard connection to make, as Reeves begins with familiar setups - the film's opening scene shows the central (ape) characters on a hunt in the woods, after which we see them riding back into town on horseback. We re-acquaint ourselves with Caesar (Andy Serkis), who now has a mate, a newborn son, and an older son who's on the verge of adulthood. The dynamics of so many towns and characters we've seen in old Westerns are at play - the ideological conflict between two dueling male leaders as an outside force looms as a pending threat; the impetuous young male struggling to accept his father's values - but once the humans enter the picture, what's interesting is the way the two sides can be viewed and interpreted almost interchangeably. Both the humans and the apes are the protagonists; both the humans and the apes are the outsiders.
When the first human character makes an appearance, he is most definitely an outsider - an unwelcome intruder in the apes' home turf in the forest. The man, Carver (Kirk Acevedo), is terrified as he stumbles upon a pair of apes, and in his fear ends up shooting one of them. He's part of a larger group trying to repair the local dam so that he and his fellow survivors - who are running desperately low on fuel - can provide electricity and start to rebuild, in one way or another, the civilization they've lost.
But they've found themselves in ape territory, and in the process discovered exactly what apes have become in the intervening years between the attack at the end of 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the here-and-now, which is 10 years later after the "Simian Flu" has wiped out most of the population. What proceeds from there is a territorial dispute that gradually turns into war, against the better efforts of diplomacy and against the better impulses of our lead characters. Those would be Caesar and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), their respective sides' pragmatic leaders, who do all they can to trust one another even as events (and characters) beyond their control make that increasingly difficult.
Without underlining it too heavily, the apes and the humans directly mirror each other; each human character essentially has an ape counterpart. I don't think this is done as a trite display of how human the apes have become, but as a comment on the universality of the characters' desires and instincts, both good and ill.
What emerges as Dawn moves along is a sort of tragic anti-war narrative. The rising tension and the increasing stakes are almost entirely the result of misunderstanding, paranoia and xenophobia. Reeves - working from a script by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver - intelligently and meticulously builds the conflict, each character's actions, and their interpretation of events, understandable and rational, even as things spiral out of control.
The way Reeves builds his tension, I was reminded of the Purple Wedding sequence from last season of Game of Thrones. What was great about that scene was the way the suspense kept rising and falling away - a constant pattern that kept pushing the tension near the breaking point, before inevitably building back up again, and until finally erupting with you-know-what. Here, Reeves accomplishes the same thing - the balance between civility and hostility is a delicate one, as the humans and apes try to co-exist even as fate keeps getting in the way. The gathering tension slowly lessens into a tenuous serenity between the two sides, before one fleeting moment - or gesture, or the appearance of a weapon - shatters it, and suddenly everything is back at square one.
Naturally, much of the tension is in the fact that we know, even in the most affectionate moments between the two groups, that this can't last. Still, we hope; Caesar and Malcolm hope as well, perhaps foolishly.
While Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman lead an excellent human cast, the apes are the film's most indelible figures. Serkis, as always, is magnificent, his face a constant source of internal conflict - his unique understanding of human culture brushing up against his ironclad will to protect the apes (what he considers one large family) at all costs. But Toby Kebbell (and the team of animators and visual artists, of course) is his equal as Koba, who becomes one of the most memorable screen villains in years. As is the case with most great antagonists, he's not simply there as a function of a plot, nor is he a cartoonish adversary; rather, he seems to have noble intentions, and he and Caesar have genuine affection for each other before circumstances drive them ideologically apart.
One of the things that stands out about Dawn is how it's such a drastically different movie from its predecessor. We spend even more time with the apes than we do with the humans - getting to know them, getting to see how they've built their society - and so the way the central conflict inexorably descends into chaos and war is devastating on a visceral, emotional level. In this, his third feature, Reeves proves himself a first-rate director, handling the character and action elements with equal skill. (There's a 360-degree shot from the top of a tank that's a stunner.) I was surprised and impressed with Rupert Wyatt's series re-starter three years ago, but Dawn has one-upped it; in doing so, the Planet of the Apes franchise has officially established itself as one of the boldest and most intelligent we have.