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Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 16, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Poster

A few years back in the summer of 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes practically came out of nowhere to become one of the best moviegoing surprises in recent memory, a briskly paced franchise reboot that was as exciting as it was smart.

Now comes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a rare sequel that lives up to the potential of the already great first film, expanding the characters and story in sometimes shocking ways.  Opening atop the box office last weekend, this is the smartest and most genuinely disturbing blockbuster of the summer so far, an exhilarating and fascinating film that left me shaken.

The story picks up ten years after the events of the first film.  Many of the humans have fallen victim to a deadly virus unleashed by the failed cure for Alzheimer’s that brought heightened intelligence to the apes, and the ensuing government and nuclear fallout that the epidemic caused.  Under the leadership of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the apes have built up their own civilization just outside of San Francisco, living peacefully away from people and communicating through sign language and basic speech.

But then a group of survivors, including architect Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and former nurse Ellie (Keri Russell), stumble upon their habitat looking for access to the dam located deep in the woods that could restore their power.  Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is the leader of the remaining humans, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to regain their power, even leading them into battle against the apes.  Likewise, tortured bonobo Koba (Toby Kebbell) is immediately distrustful of the people, doing whatever he can to keep them away.

The apes have become increasingly intelligent, but Caesar has gone beyond that and developed empathy, a trait which not even all of the humans share.  Although now a father who wants the best for his two sons, he also still feels kinship with the humans who raised him, and because of this reaches a treaty with Malcolm that allows the people to work on their land.  But when the apes and humans come together, they ultimately clash in ways that inevitably won’t end peacefully.

Things escalate and quickly turn violent from both sides, revealing that in moments of conflict, humans and apes really aren’t that different.  Both human and animal bodies pile up, as machine guns often fire directly towards the camera, and if this visceral intensity and violence makes you uncomfortable, then I think that’s the point.  Although packing the multiplexes as a huge summer blockbuster, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is actually a sobering sequel that ends on a sombre note, with a haunting final scene that sticks with us long after leaving the theatre.

The screenplay challenges the audience with intelligent and very real allegories of senseless gun violence and what leads to war, which are pretty fearless messages for a big budget film.  Director Matt Reeves does great work behind the camera, staging several knockout action sequences, as well as some quieter character moments that are equally mesmerizing to watch.  There are long stretches free of conventional dialogue, as the apes talk to each other through subtitled sign language.

The artists at WETA have truly taken the motion capture technology to the next level, seamlessly mixing the animated animals with their live action counterparts and gorgeously photographed backgrounds.  But the real star here is Andy Serkis, delivering a stunning and complex performance behind the digital mask of Caesar.  It’s hard to tell where the actor ends and the character begins, and he deserves serious awards recognition, with a role that should make the Academy rethink their past decisions not to honour motion capture performances.

Neither the humans or the apes are painted as the clear cut heroes of the story, but rather there are good and bad of both species.  The true heroes are the ones like Caesar and Malcolm, who understand each other’s needs, looking for peaceful solutions in a world trying to settle things through conflict.  The villains are Dreyfus and Koba, who feel there is only room for one or the other.  All of their actions are driven by the most basic needs for survival.  The humans need power and shelter, living in fear of the apes.  The apes need their own home and natural habitat, contrarily living in fear of the humans.

It’s these shades of grey that are evident throughout the storytelling and visually arresting production design that make Dawn of the Planet of the Apes so impressive.  This is one of the best and most thought provoking films of the year so far, a disturbing and stunningly realized sequel that expands the now famous mythology in some surprisingly intelligent ways, leaving us shaken and anxiously awaiting the next instalment.

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