In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rupert Wyatt brilliantly brings the popular franchise back to life. A San Francisco scientist created a drug that would cure Alzheimer’s disease. After deeming it a success to chimps, his co-workers decide to make a powerful version of the drug. This causes a worldwide epidemic after the apes had a rebellion on the Golden Gate Bridge to escape to Muir Woods National Monument. This leads up to the next film.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) introduces somebody else to the director’s chair, and known for making some of the most ambitious films of this century. Enter Matt Reeves, the director of the sci-fi found-footage film Cloverfield and the vampire drama Let Me In (remake of 2008’s Let the Right One In). I’m glad he stepped in to direct more Planet of the Apes films. What he does with Dawn is as ambitious as it is pretty damn captivating.
Ten years after a simian flu outbreak, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes have called the Muir Woods their home. They create their own laws (“Ape Not Kill Ape” being one of the key laws) and teach the young. The movie opens up with them hunting for elk (accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s haunting score, the choir feels reminiscent to Ligetti’s “Atmospheres”, used in the star gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Seeing his son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) almost killed, Caesar tells him to “Think before you act.”
Meanwhile, a group of survivors, including Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his wife Ellie (Keri Russell), and son Alex (Kodi-Smit McPhee), are living in a now-devastated San Francisco. They need to get the power running through the city; however, the dam that connects the power throughout the city is on the other side of ape territory. While Caesar wants to keep peace between apes and humans, Koba (Toby Kebbell) has a strong hatred for humans. He goes out of his way to kill every last of them for revenge.
Dawn has plenty of connections to Battle. To be fair, this throws every single Planet of the Apes sequel out of the water. Reeves uses the connections from the original films to his full advantage. The movie has a marvelous theme involving supremacy with allegorical connections to Cain and Abel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Caesar and Koba are two distinct yet different characters. Caesar’s leadership is through compassion. He might miss having a human companion, but he has to focus on protecting the apes in their sanctuary even his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) sick after giving birth. A lot of apes join his side, including orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval). In contrast, Koba is sick of the abuse being brought upon by the humans. In one scene involving dark humor, he encounters two people—Terry (Lombardo Boyar) and McVeigh (Kevin Renkin)—who sit back and having a drink after target practice. Koba entertains them until he picks up a gun and starts shooting them. The reason why Koba is one of the franchise’s most memorable villains is because he is so unpredictable at what might happen to him. It amazes me how smarter the apes are with each movie.
Motion capture has certainly come a long way after The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Weta Digital is back to make the CGI apes as seamless as ever. I’m surprised Andy Serkis has not received a special Academy Award for bringing these characters to life. His performance as Caesar is one of the most powerful I have seen in many years. Furthermore, he’s one of the only characters performed through motion-capture that moved me to tears. His affection for humans is just the same for his affection for his ape friends. While Malcolm (wonderfully played by Clarke, fresh from starring as one of the NAVY seals assigned to kill Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty) may not be like Will, but he has a similar motivation as Caesar in every way. He has suffered so much during the ten years, and wants to have peace in the world as opposed to violence. After losing his youngest daughter to the outbreak, the only people he has to care about is Ellie and Alex. Once Malcolm finds shelter at Caesar’s childhood home, he and his family must help him get back to health. In one powerful scene, Caesar goes through the attic and sees a video camera. He watches a video of him as an infant learning sign language from Will. Malcolm asks who that was in the video. Caesar says, “A good man…like you.”
Dawn is perhaps the most complex film in the series, filled with compelling characters. Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, for instance, is particularly complicated. It’s obvious that he has a law enforcement background. He lost everything, from his family to his job as a police officer. He’s not happy with Caesar and the apes living on this planet. He’s struggling just as much as everyone else. From the villain in The Fifth Element, Sirius Black, Commissioner Gordon, and now he’s going to play Winston Churchill in the upcoming Darkest Hour, it proves how great of an actor Oldman is.
This movie is most certainly not without its action. Nothing looks more awesome than seeing a group of apes riding on horseback (the shot of the tank is also just as gorgeous as the miraculous sets of post-apocalyptic San Francisco and the apes’ sanctuary). When they finally go at it against the humans, it makes the audience root for both sides. Meanwhile, Caesar has reached his breaking point with Koba, they fight in one of the most thrilling fights set on top of a tower.
It is impossible to top such a classic like the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes, but Matt Reeves has made a wonderful piece of science-fiction with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It has just enough thrills, emotion, dark comedy, and visual wonder to make it my personal favorite film in the series. Bring on, War for the Planet of the Apes!