Review – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn2

The revolution from Rise of the Planet of the Apes is over as the intelligent ape, Caesar (Andy ‘motion capture’ Serkis), moves from being a hairy Che Guevara to a furry Julius Caesar/Abraham Lincoln in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Sadly, those bothersome hairless apes are still around after the disease unleashed at the end of Rise wipes out most of the human population. The survivors are vaguely described to have lived because they are ‘genetically immune’. The apes don’t own the planet yet and it seems Charlton Heston’s wailing from 1968 of “you blew it up” should actually be “they coughed it up”.

The enlightened apes have established a community in a forest outside San Francisco where they’ve formulated laws (‘ape must not kill ape’ is scrawled on a wall) and a small autocracy. The apes’ peace is disrupted when a group of gun toting humans (Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Kirk Acevedo) arrive to access a hydroelectric dam to restore power to a nearby outpost led by Gary Oldman playing Gary Oldman again.

Dawn is the smashing opening sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey fleshed out to hit blockbuster beats. The ideas are bold and director, Matt Reeves, ensures the creed of Dawn is lush with all the hallmarks of reflective eco-sci-fi that’s prominent in cinema in 2014 with films like Snowpiercer and Noah (replace the sci with the Bible; eco-bi-fi). The humans can’t keep the power on because they’re still relying on gasoline, they can’t cope with their new status on the food chain and nature is slowly reclaiming the Earth.

Meanwhile, the apes are discovering their souls and going through the motions of a primitive society in establishing order. Caesar is a diplomat whose ideals rest with home and family as the centrepiece for ape culture; he has a wife and two sons, life is good. Reeves shows the apes as an innocent bunch that are living in a mash up between ancient Rome (it even burns at one point) and the Garden of Eden. Sure, they use primitive spears to hunt animals but they have yet to commit any sin that will awaken the emotions of their newly found consciousness. The arrival of the humans aggravates a dormant hatred that appears in the form of the sinister ape Koba (Toby Kebbell), Caesar’s second in command. The plot focuses on an uneasy alliance between humans and apes. The threat of violence is ever present and Reeves ensures the crack of every single bullet in Dawn is frightening and a destructive butterfly effect rattles the narrative as a consequence.

Koba evolves into shaggy Hitler and puts in motion a plan to unite the apes with their hatred of the humans using fear and declare war, and then throw the people who survive in cages, as well as anyone loyal to the old regime; World War II Nazi Germany allegory anyone? Koba’s wicked turn forces Caesar to accept that humans and apes are the same and the only definitive lines are between good and evil. It’s here that the classic elements of storytelling embedded in Dawn start to become apparent and you’re on the emotional path with Caesar solidifying himself as the apes’ champion.

When the tension breaks the action sequences are breathtaking and it’s where Reeves leaves an unforgettable stamp on the film with machine gun toting apes on horseback storming a human blockade. Punctuating these moments of conflict is a terrific score by Michael Giacchino that trumpets the looming chaos. There’s a little overkill toward the finale as Reeves and screenwriters Mark Bomback and Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, draw all the characters to a central location for ‘the final showdown’ that’s a tired blockbuster trope. Speaking of weary elements, Dawn has one of the worst representations of female characters in a mainstream film, and it adheres to 1950s housewife stereotypes for both the human and ape characters. For a movie that’s progressive with ideas it’s a damn shame to see something so backwards in execution.

While the ladies are underrepresented and underwritten, it’s clear that although the men dominate the scenery their roles are just as limiting. The male human characters are a generic bunch of yelling skin sacks and a case could be made that they don’t matter in the same way the bland human characters were excused as collateral damage in 2014s Godzilla.

Dawn belongs to the apes and the collaborative effort of the motion capture artists and digital effects sorcerers is outstanding. There are only a few moments of doubt where you feel like you’re in an emotionally vacuous digital vortex as the light bounces of the computer generated apes in an unusual way or a pale line around an ape against natural scenery yanks you out of the film.

Serkis is stoic as Caesar and you can see the performance maturing from Rise as the character nobly moves around the environment, rising to pump out his chest when challenged, and showing vulnerability with subtle facial expressions tracked by those precious motion capture dots. The display of status between Serkis’ Ceasar and Kebbell’s Koba in the spaces they occupy is outstanding. Caesar tends to stand high while Koba crawls lower to the ground; it’s as if Kebbell has studied Serkis’ Gollum. The positions change depending on which character is in a position of power but it’s such an important nonverbal touch in the realm of motion capture performances.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is like the Aliens of the Planet of the Apes prequel timeline that easily tops the predecessor while slotting in nicely with the sci-fi origins of the series.

4/5

Cameron Williams
The Popcorn Junkie

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