Back in 2011, expectations were practically non-existent for ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, a reboot/prequel to the 1968 science fiction masterpiece. The franchise had pretty much begun to fall apart with the first sequel in 1970, and the last we’d seen of it was the dreadful 2001 remake. It was also a time where everything under the sun was getting rebooted or remade, and doing so to ‘Planet of the Apes’ seemed like an idea set up for failure. So it was a complete surprise when ‘Rise’ turned out to be both a critical and commercial success, a far more entertaining and affecting film that anyone was expecting. A follow-up was quickly put into production, and thanks to the success of ‘Rise’, there has been a fair amount of excitement for ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’. But with a new director at the helm and a bigger canvas to work on, could it prove that ‘Rise’ was just a really lucky fluke?
Over a decade since genetically-modified ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) led his rebellion from San Francisco into the redwoods above the city, most of the human race has been wiped out by a virus resulting from the very same experiments that made these apes the intelligent beings they are. Building a city in the woods, they have lived without inference from what is left of humanity, until a group led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) stumble upon the apes while looking for a dam whose generator might restore San Francisco’s power. Ape and man initially reconnect with hostility, but Malcolm convinces the human survivors to trust the apes and seek their help to restore the generator. Yet there is uncertainty within the ape tribe, particularly from Koba (Toby Kebbell), an ape who was subjected to torturous experiments and harbours revenge against man. With both species already on the edge, Koba sets events in motion that force Caesar to decide between peace with the humans or all-out war.
If ‘Rise’ was a sort-of remake of the fourth film in the original series, ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes’, ‘Dawn’ does the same with the fifth, ‘Battle of the Planet of the Apes’, where humans and apes are pushed to the brink of war. ‘Battle’ was easily the weakest film of the series, but with ‘Dawn’, director Matt Reeves and screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback have taken the ideas and the spine of that film and shot them into the stratosphere, making ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ one of the most affecting and breathtaking blockbusters in years. Everything about this film improves not just on the previous film, but every film since the 1968 original. This saves it from the kitsch purgatory of the charming kids adventures it had been reduced to and returning it to science-fiction as political and social allegory. Rather than relying on spectacle (and there is definitely a lot of that on offer), the film acts as a psychological character piece. The two species very clearly cannot live in harmony with one another, especially with the humans ignorantly placing the blame for the plague on the shoulders of the apes. The mantra from ‘Battle’, that of "Ape shall never kill Ape", returns in the film - but with the drama and brutality intensified, this mantra has far more emotional impact, as the apes find themselves pushed to the point of breaking that law and destroying what they’ve created. At the heart of that is Caesar, an ape raised by humans but trying to establish a world where his species and his family can live in safety, who is tested by his chilling conflict with Koba. As with ‘Dawn’, the film is at its weakest when focusing on the human characters, but this film spends more of its time with the apes, making it a much more resonant one.
Like ‘Rise’, the script is occasionally weak, but it still has more going on than almost every blockbuster we’ve seen this year, and gives Reeves a much grander and complex canvas on which to create incredible work. The filmmaking on display here is stunning, from the gorgeous cinematography to the delicate editing, the staggering production design and affecting sound design. Composer Michael Giacchino also delivers a powerful score that makes copious reference to Jerry Goldsmith’s work for the original film. Reeves takes the franchise in a direction it has long needed to go - into the realm of the epic - and his work easily stands with Gareth Edwards’ on ‘Godzilla’ as intelligent and passionate blockbuster filmmaking. The rhythms, visuals and tone of the film are pitched to perfection, and even in the rare moments that the film stumbles, it recovers quickly with even more power and ferocity.
‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ is one of the most affecting and breathtaking blockbusters in years.
However, what really takes your breath away is the remarkable visual effects, in every way a quantum leap from the last film. The subtlety in the execution of the apes is staggering, incredibly nuanced and detailed, and supported by flat-out astounding performances, not just from Andy Serkis but the entire ape cast. Kebbell prevents Koba from becoming a textbook villain, instead crafting him as a complex and tortured soul hell-bent on revenge for the crimes committed against him. Serkis has long been the giant of motion-capture performance, and Caesar can sit comfortably next to King Kong and Gollum as one of the finest computer-generated performances ever captured on screen. It’s no coincidence that the same actor and the same technical team have been responsible for all three. The human cast aren’t quite as memorable as the apes, but Jason Clarke is a terrific match for Serkis, the bond between Caesar and Malcolm genuine and believable. The film might be dominated by the apes, but Reeves has made sure that the human story balances against it, and in this one rare instance, actually achieves this.
Whatever the expectations were for this film, it has totally blown them away. ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ is blockbuster filmmaking at its finest: a visually breathtaking and emotionally powerful film that tackles difficult themes but never shies away from them. Often brutal but deeply heartfelt, it brings the franchise back to the ideals and artistry that made the original so remarkable, and honours its legacy. A third film has already been announced with Reeves returning as director, and it cannot arrive soon enough. As ‘Dawn’ reaches its thunderous finale, you’ll be left begging to see what happens next, and how the saga will return to the iconic image of Charlton Heston on a beach before a shattered Statue of Liberty on a planet ruled by apes.