A sequel that expands on the story ideas and emotional resonance of its predecessor, without jogging in place for two hours and change, is hard to come by in this day and age in Hollywood, but “Dawn of The Planet of The Apes” delivers in a big way. It retains the knockout visual effects and weighty sci-fi allegory that the almost 60-year-old franchise demands, while continuing the story of “Rise of The Planet of The Apes” in about as organic a way as we could have hoped for. And it’s all anchored by an incredible motion captured performance from Andy Serkis. It may end as a warming up for better things to come, but the ride there is powerful enough to enjoy without the safety of a closure seatbelt.
Ten years after the events of “Rise,” Ceasar (Serkis) and the rest of the evolved apes have taken to the forest after the ALZ-113 virus has decimated the human population of Earth. Desperate for electricity and fuel, human liason Malcolm (Jason Clarke) creates an uneasy truce between humans and apes, in order to get the dam in ape territory running. Conflict stemming from disruptive forces on both sides – namely Gary Oldman’s human leader Dreyfus and Ceasar’s head lieutenant Koba – serve to keep both factions teetering on the edge of full-scale war.
One of the main problems with “Rise” was its insistence on keeping the considerably more boring human characters front and center, while Ceasar and the rest of the apes developed on the sidelines. This is a problem that many current big-budget blockbusters have, adding human-insert characters as emotional surrogates in a film about ostensibly non-human entities like apes, transforming robots, or giant anthropomorphic lizards, to name a few, leaving the more interesting title characters as tertiary afterthoughts in their own movie. It made sense in the context of the first film, so that the humans could serve their purpose of explaining how the virus came about and give Ceasar his origin story. Here, the fact that the film is structured around the apes’ story, with humans sculling along the borders, was a refreshing change of pace. Hollywood’s insistence on including human-insert characters for Joe/Jane Moviegoer to latch onto, has been an annoying symptom of contemporary Hollywood’s reboot-centric atmosphere, and I was glad to see the apes’ story of hierarchy take center stage, and flow with the human b-story, rather than overpower it.
And boy, what a story it is. An uneasy truce between equally shady sides, vying for survival in a harsh post-apocalyptic setting, is par for the course; but the cast wrings every bit of emotion they can out of it. Gary Oldman chews as much scenery as he’s allowed, given his considerably short screen-time as the hard-ass human leader who’s ready to take the apes down. Mr. Oldman’s views on political correctness must’ve translated over to his character, huh? The rest of the human cast – from Clarke, to Keri Russell as a former CDC worker, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as his son – are little more than post-apocalypse stock characters, but their earnest portrayals shine through the thinly sketched survivors.
As everyone knows, though, this is the apes’ show. The folks at WETA Digital used motion-capture to bring the apes to life, and it’s remarkable how stunning they are. Andy Serkis, in particular, continues to prove that he’s one-of-a-kind in the mo-cap business, not simply playing Ceasar, as much as he completely embodies him. Every facial expression, every series of branch swings, every grunt and enunciated syllable came from Serkis’ being, and he’s so convincing it’s scary. It’s unlike any other performance you’ve ever seen, and worth the price of admission alone.
Are there some problems? Yea, sure. The ending is a bit anticlimactic as these kind of movies go, and feels like more of a set-up for another film to come, than a full-on conclusion; the human characters are so thinly drawn, they’d be extraneous if their (our?) irrational nature didn’t serve as the driving force of the film’s conflict; and I would’ve liked to see more of Ceasar’s wife and their newborn son.
But even with these complaints, “Dawn of The Planet of The Apes’” focus was where it needed to be. The thought-provoking facets that have always been a part of the “Planet of the Apes” story are still here; also Andy Serkis as Ceasar stands as one of the most inherently human characters ever in a work of science fiction; and even if all of that is too heady for you, there’s always the prospect of "ARMED MONKEYS ON HORSEBACK."
The fact that “Dawn of The Planet of The Apes” is a summer tent-pole with a brain and a conscience shouldn’t be this refreshing, not after a 60 year lifespan; but with other smart summer tent-poles in short supply, backed by genuine heart and quality filmmaking, the Apes are all we’ve got for now.