Tim Burton’s atrocious remake of Planet Of The Apes should have killed off interest in the franchise of apocalyptic monkeying around over a decade ago. But then came Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, a rather brilliant franchise relaunch (and loose remake of the deeply underrated Conquest For The Planet Of The Apes)that dialed back to the origin of the ape evolution and a told a clever allegory about human nature and scientific animal abuse hinged on a wonderful motion capture performance by Andy Serkis. Now we have Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, a much bigger follow up as a result of the last movie’s unexpected global success, but thankfully not a dumber cash crab. This time the director is Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) who loosely remakes the troubled Battle For The Planet Of The Apes into a tragic epic that is easily one of the wisest, most technically accomplished, and exciting movies to emerge this summer. This franchise hasn’t just been revived, it’s stronger than ever. Even though this new series is headed straight for a foregone conclusion involving Charlton Heston, a loincloth, and the statue of liberty, the journey has already proved to be far richer and more affecting than anyone had any right to expect.
The film opens with a montage catching audiences up on the ten years that have passed since the first film. The same super serum that gave Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow apes a shot of intelligence also turned into an airborne virus that wiped out most of the human population. The only humans we see in the movie are a few hundred struggling survivors living in a rotted out San Francisco and led by a wary and trigger happy Gary Oldman. However, Reeves doesn’t start his film with them. Continuing the transition of Rise that made Caesar the lead of the franchise, we open on an ape utopia. Caesar and his fellow apes have spent a decade building a glorious village where children are taught signs and language, apes hunt in packs, live in peace, and want for nothing. The peace is disrupted when a few humans stumble onto the community and kill an ape out of fear. The scarred animal testing vet ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) immediately wants to go to war, but Caesar doesn’t want his new world to be defined by violence. He tries for peace and even allows a small group of humans (led by Jason Clarke and Keri Russell) to pass through the village to repair a dam and restore power to San Francisco. This infuriates Koba and makes Oldman deeply uncomfortable. So, the peace will inevitably be shattered and if you’ve seen the trailers or even a poster, you’ll know that means it’s all diving head first towards monkey warfare involving apes riding horses while firing assault rifles (and yes, those images are just as awesome as they sound).
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is not quite as intellectually ambitious as Rise, but what it lacks in layers of social commentary it makes up for by not delivering its points in ham-fisted ways or through cheesy characters. What’s most impressive about Reeves’ follow up is the unexpected subtlety (well, as much subtlety as one can achieve in an ape/human war picture anyways). The movie serves as an allegory for the fragility of peace in hostile areas and the inevitability of violence in both human and animal nature. Reeves makes these points clear without ever hammering the audience over the head. It’s very much the message of the movie, but not necessarily its driving force. Instead, Reeves’ focus is primarily in developing the apes and their community more fully and he does so magnificently. Serkis is, of course, at the center and delivers a remarkable silent performance that trumps even his work in the last film. Whether leading a rousing battle cry or experiencing more subtle waves of emotion or nostalgia in quieter scenes, the way that the actor inhabits his digital character is astounding and his work is matched by his team of motion capture co-stars (most notably Toby Kebbell who’s returning Koba transforms into a truly vicious villain). The fact that Reeves is able to spend so much time amongst the mostly silent apes and fully communicate the bonds, turmoil, and emotions of that world is an impressive and downright ballsy achievement in a summer blockbuster. Of course, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the digital effects are a step above Rise. There are no dodgy digital effect shots this time suggesting stretched resources or an unforgiving schedule. Every ape is animated with exquisite detail and characterization without a pixel out of place. The only major criticism to throw at the film is that the human characters are a bit underdeveloped compared to their ape counterparts, but given the subject matter and title of the movie, that’s almost appropriate.
Of course, despite retaining the mandated social commentary and stunning ape effects for a Planet Of The Apes movie, none of it would mean much if this wasn’t an exciting summer blockbuster thrill ride. Thankfully Reeves doesn’t miss a beat there either, delivering some impeccably staged ape/human battles that are massive, visceral, and unsettling. Though more than happy to deliver a show-stopping set piece (in particular, one battle shot from the perspective of a rotating tank head will leave jaws agape), Reeves never forgets that his movie is ultimately against violence and delivers sad and harsh action that makes an impact. There’s more than enough popcorn fodder here to make the blockbuster a deserved summer time hit, yet like all of the Apes films before it, Dawn is a movie about ideas and apes first and spectacle second. Reeves came into the series as a lifelong fan of The Planet Of The Apes franchise and managed to deliver easily one of the most satisfying sequels of the summer. This revived Apes franchise is in good hands with Reeves, who handles it all with such authority and care that even when a cliffhanger ending arrives there’s no sense of frustration. The film is simply too satisfying for that. Instead, you’ll just start a mental countdown until the day that you can finally see the next chapter.