When the prequel / reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes was trailed in early 2011, it was not met with universal excitement. Partly due to the dogs dinner that was the previous Apes film (Shame on you Tim Burton!) the film turned out to be a major surprise hit at the box office and ended up as my number two film of the year. With success sequels surely follow. Thankfully the follow up film was not a rushed affair, having taken three years to complete and it was placed in the directorial hands of Matt Reeves, best known for his association with J.J. Abrams and the movies Cloverfield and Let Me In. The sequel had a tough job meeting expectations. I’m happy to report it exceeded them.
Dawn is set ten years after the events of the previous film. A deadly virus has inadvertently been released from a lab resulting in the deaths of 90% of the human race. The Apes, lead by Caesar (Andy Serkis), are organised into a self sufficient community in the hills above San Francisco. Their peace is disrupted by an encounter with a group of humans led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke). The remaining humans in the city below are running out of power and the dam in the woods is the answer to their needs. The first encounter ends in the shooting of an ape and Caesar has to make a decision to engage in war or broker a peace with the humans. Forces on both sides exert themselves to make every effort to influence the outcome.
If you believed the trailer, then the film you would have expected would be an all action summer blockbuster with lots of ape versus man fighting and fast paced set pieces. That is not what you actually get. The film comes across more like a Shakespearean drama with several major themes in play. There is a great emphasis on family and the responsibilities that it entails. Caesar is already in a position of power and has gained a lot of respect through his action and clear judgments. The dilemma he faces with the interaction with humans is what it means for his community. Denying them access to the dam almost certainly means war, one which he knows will be costly in terms of casualties. If he allows the human request he faces internal strife for trusting the ‘enemy’. You will agree this is not just the usual fare of a summer blockbuster.
What really marks this film out from the norm is the way in which the film is paced. We now expect our summer fare to be a succession of high octane set pieces threaded together with minimal plot, dialogue and gratuitous sexism (looking at you Michael Bay!). The pacing of the film is gentle and deliberate. Characters are presented and developed with care and attention to detail. Even relatively minor characters. One of the real surprises is that for about one third of the film there is no dialogue at all as the apes communicate using sign language. It is an expressive and powerful way of getting a point across and it never takes you out of the drama while reading the subtitles. For a change in the film series the story is told from the apes perspective. They have proven to be the more sympathetic characters based on this view. The overall result is a story that enthralls and entertains.
The parent and child dynamic is examined from both the human and ape perspective. Malcolm has a teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who in his own words ‘has seen things a child should never see’. His motivations for everything he is trying to achieve is driven by the bond he has forged with his boy. Caesar’s situation is similar. He has a son (Nick Thurston) who is approaching adulthood and is starting to assert himself and challenge his father. Caesar finds it difficult to get through to him and the added complication of a newborn increases the tension.
Of course, Andy Serkis is the star of the film. He gives a superb performance as the ape leader. With the further development of motion capture, he is able to capture the essence of the whole character rather than the voice and inflections. A lot of people dismiss his work as being the creation of a host of special effect technicians, but you can clearly see that under the technology there has to be a believable acting performance to make you believe that Caesar is really on the screen. The other actors using motion capture are just as convincing especially the individualities of Koba (Tony Kebbell), Blue Eyes, Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary). The Human cast is equally strong. Jason Clarke gives a sensitive performance as the ‘good’ man who confronts the problems generated by both sides. Gary Oldman and Keri Russel in relatively minor roles are both up to their impeccably high standards.
The film is not all drama as there are a couple of minor action scenes and a two large battle scenes. The action scenes are handled very well and the audience remains in no doubt where they are and what is going on at any point. There is a nice nod to the original Planet Of The Apes film when we see the apes on horseback in numerous scenes. There are also touches that inform how the ape society will develop in future films. There are subtle divisions beginning to show within the community with the Orangutan becoming the teacher and the Gorillas living separately and becoming the warriors.
The score from Michael Giacchino deserves a special mention. There are a couple of occasions where the music was used to excellent effect and there was a nineteen sixties action movie feel to some tracks which called back to the original film series. The three note leitmotif for the character of Caesar was used very subtly throughout and the score solidly underpinned the mood and pace of the film.
Easily the best blockbuster film of the year and a serious contender for the best movie of 2014. Highly recommended.