In order for me to take a good hard look at the best and worst in human behavior, I had to see a “lesser” species turn our guns on us in a movie. And no, that’s not any kind of crack about gun control; it’s just what happens in the movie, and the impact is gut wrenching. Imagine if the man-apes from the opening of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY went from pounding each other on the heads with bones to picking up machine guns and mowing each other down to establish dominance, and you may have some idea of the impact of seeing the spiritually compromised ape Koba (motion-capture acted by the brilliant Toby Kebbell) riding horseback through a rundown, overgrown San Francisco with machine guns blazing in each hand. You’ll probably laugh a little before you shudder.
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is set 10 years after two simultaneous events occurred (as shown in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES): some kind of man-made simian flu was released, killing off nearly all human life on earth (through the bug and by the resulting violence); and a drug designed to repair brain cells and increase intelligence was set loose into the ape population, resulting in the world’s first talking ape, named Caesar (once again played with a combination of deep thought and unfiltered rage by Andy Serkis), who has since become the ape world’s natural leader. It’s a little unclear how far-reaching this smart-ape phenomenon has spread, but when the few remaining humans in San Francisco first come in contact with Caesar’s tribe, they are shocked to hear them speak, let alone reason and organize. For all we know, Caesar’s group is the only of its kind; I suspect in the sequel to this film, we’ll find out for sure. But I digress…
The humans living in the city cross the crumbling bridges that lead into the woods where the apes live in order to find a now shutdown dam that they believe they can turn back on and restore power to San Francisco. But they are met with an army of apes that force them to leave the woods, but not before a trigger-happy human shoots an ape, getting the unofficial Human-Ape Peace Accord off to a shaky start. Still Caesar lets the humans go, but before long, he and his ranks show up at the front gates of the humans’ paltry dwelling, drawing a clear line in the sand: “Human home; ape home,” he says pointing to the broken down city and the woods across the bridge, respectively.
But the humans still need that power supply at the dam, so Malcolm (Jason Clarke), Ellie (a doctor, played by Keri Russell), Malcolm’s son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and a few others, including Kirk Acevedo’s Carver—the dude who shot the ape in the first place—all return to the woods to beg Caesar for help, which he grants reluctantly, thus driving a wedge between his closest followers and those who hate all humans, led by Koba. And that’s all you need to know because the entire film is a massive spiraling-out-of-control series of actions and reactions that all stem from that divide and seem inevitable in a terrible way.
The magnificence of DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is in the details. The first large chunk of time after a brief prologue letting us know what has transpired since the last film is nothing but a sequence showing us the lives of the apes in the woods, from hunting to child care (it was a bit disappointing to see that, even in ape society, the female of the species is marginalized). In this entire segment, the apes only use sign language, but it’s clear that their powers of thought, reasoning and logic are unbelievably advanced. Much like in the first film, the first use of ape voices is saved for a very special moment in the story, and it is once again a voice raised in anger.
It’s easy to get lost in the technical side of DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, and spend most of the film wondering how the special effects teams managed so much detail and subtlety. But the truth is spending all of your time wondering about movie magic takes away from it. The film is so much more impressive and powerful if you just see the apes as apes. Serkis’ performance this time around is so much different that what he did in the last film. In this movie, he is called upon to be understated much of the time, contemplative, curious, suspicious, vulnerable, and a confident, strong leader who is willing to sacrifice his life to save his fellow ape.
And it’s not just Serkis who gets to have all the fun this time around. In addition to Kebbell's downright terrifying turn as Koba, we also get returning favorites Terry Notary as Rocket and Karin Konoval as the wise orangutan Maurice, as well as newcomers Judy Greer (!) as Caesar’s mate Cornelia and his oldest son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). If those two character names ring any bells for you, enjoy that, because the film doesn’t do nearly the amount of winking toward the original series as the last film did—something else I consider a positive.
One of the most interesting of the human characters is the man who has apparently be chosen to lead the survivors, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who seems both willing to maintain the shaky peace with the apes but also insists on stockpiling and testing weapons from a FEMA arsenal in the city in case war breaks out.
In an odd irony, the primary reason the film works so well is the emphasis on the adjusting and adapting ape society in the face of this new human threat (apparently apes haven’t seen any signs of human in more than two years at this point, leading them to contemplate whether they were extinct); the only issue I had with this pushing the ape storyline to the front and center is that the human characters feel slightly underwritten by screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback. It takes strong, always capable actors like Oldman and Clarke to fill in the gaps in character development, and give us something identifiable to grasp onto.
Director Matt Reeves has grown into one of the great chameleons of the genre world, adapting his style to fit the material rather than forcing a particular visual style on it. With CLOVERFIELD, he gave us one of the great found-footage works in recent memory. He traded in shaky cameras for eerie, haunting atmosphere for the remade vampire tale LET ME IN; and now he’s taking on the moment in history where the planet has to figure out who the dominant species is. And it may take a bloody, terrible war to make that determination. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is an epic story told on an intimate scale, and yes, there may even be a small message tucked away in there about how introducing an insane number of guns into a society makes it all the more likely that they will get used. Deal with it.
In one of the finest and quietest moments in the film, we are reminded (even if his fellow apes are never made aware) that Caesar was raised by a loving, caring human, and this simple fact makes him a creature torn between two worlds—an inner battle that Serkis is more than up to capturing in his extraordinary performance. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES appears to set up an even more devastating battle yet to come between apes and man, and the winner may not come down to firepower; it may be a matter of who has earned the right to survive. You can’t help but be impressed by both the scale Reeves and company are taking on (he is returning to direct the next film as well) and the depths of social commentary being plumbed. No matter what you go summer movies for, I’m fairly certain this chapter in the PLANET OF THE APES saga will more than satisfy you.