Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

The term ‘turn off your brain’ generally gets thrown around when discussing sizeable Hollywood blockbusters; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on the other hand, is a rare exception. After Tim Burton’s bizarre Planet of the Apes (2001) reboot quickly fizzled, many presumed that the nearly 50-year-old franchise had faltered. In spite of this, Fox remained confident that the Apes saga still had life left within it. Rise of the Planet of the Apes reconfigured the series back in 2011 and, at the time, was chiefly advertised as a James Franco starring vehicle. The film, however, turned out to be something else; an innovative re-launch which boasted intelligent storytelling, exhilarating action and fantastic special effects, proving that this reboot was headed for a bright — financially and creatively — future. With Rise of the Planet of the Apes helmer Rupert Wyatt passing the baton over to director Matt Reeves, Cloverfield (2008) for this follow-up — due to a hurried production schedule — the series remained in capable hands.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up ten years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which concluded with a global outbreak of the lab-grown simian flu eliminating the majority of the world’s population. The picture cleverly opens with a lengthy, almost wordless sequence — as the apes communicate with sign language — which illustrates the primate’s new growing society in the forest of Marin County, where their leader Caesar — Andy Serkis in his first top-billing role — has established a rather peaceful culture. The apes — who have even learned to ride horses — are seen going about their daily business, reflecting on their new lives and recollecting their varied thoughts on the humans, who they believe had all been wiped out.

What's smarter than a talking ape? A spelling bee!
What’s smarter than a talking ape? A spelling bee!

Eventually, a group of people — exploring the Muir Woods for supplementary power for their nearby San Francisco home — run into the ape district and accidentally harm young chimpanzee, Ash (Larramie Doc Shaw). In order to maintain their current peace, Caesar — who has evolved over time and is able to speak in broken English — orders the humans to leave and never return. With a hominoid injured, the fragile peace is shattered and hostility develops between man and ape, forcing several members of the primate community — lead by the aggressive Koba (Toby Kebbell), the year’s most malicious villain — to retaliate against mankind in an effort to confirm that apes are now the dominant species on the planet.

For starters, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is crammed with powerful performances, particularly from its digital players — who come off being more empathetic than the majority of the human cast — each having their own distinct, yet convincing personality. From Caesar, played by motion-capture specialist Andy Serkis, King Kong (2005), the leader of the ape colony trying to do the right thing for his makeshift tribe, to Judy Greer, Suddenly 30 (2004), who portrays Caesar’s unwell mate Cornelia — mother of his timid son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) — providing Caesar with a primate to care for; the computer-generated work on Dawn truly outshines the ‘actors.’ The experts at WETA Digital have clearly outdone themselves in this picture, as the wizardry on display in Dawn is leaps and bounds ahead of what they were able to achieve on Rise, creating photorealistic apes capable of connecting with audiences on various emotional levels — it’s hard to believe that these characters are simply just a bunch of actors in silly green spandex-suits covered with tracking dots. What’s more, director Reeves utilizes techniques not seen since the days of silent film to establish various communication methods between the primates when dialogue isn’t feasible, resulting in several beautiful and powerful moments.

It's monkey business as usual for Serkis!
It’s monkey business as usual for Serkis!

While the apes are uniformly terrific, the same can’t be said about the human cast. Jason Clarke, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), owns his role as the persevering Malcolm, a man striving to revive his town by restoring their diminishing power supply, whilst the reliable Gary Oldman, RoboCop (2014), has a few shining scenes as Dreyfus — the ex-police officer who is seen as a hero amongst his people — including a powerful shot, which oddly enough involves the chirrup of an iPad. On the other hand, Reeve’s Let Me In (2010) star Kodi Smit-McPhee and his Felicity (1998) lead Keri Russell, appear to be needlessly inserted into the picture to amplify its human element and serve little other purpose.

Screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), and Mark Bomback, Live Free or Die Hard (2007), make various connections between the dilemmas facing both factions, human and ape, in their script, such as Koba’s contempt for the human race versus Dreyfus’ mistrust of their rival primates, almost forcing viewers to internally juggle which side they should be sympathizing with. Furthermore, this morally intriguing screenplay tackles bigger political and social ideas illustrating valuable lessons on multi-cultural co-existence and problems faced when managing suspicions in unstable situations. Simply put, this challenging picture offers more than just throwaway science fiction entertainment.

There's no monkeying around on this set!
There’s no monkeying around on this set!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes cinematographer Michael Seresin, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), delivers various arresting images along the way which broaden the complex narrative; these include a superb 360-degree point-of-view shot captured directly from the cannon of a tank in the midst of battle, while savage fires are used to illuminate scenes, creating impressive symbolic visuals alongside the riveting action set pieces. To top it all off, Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino, Super 8 (2011), pays courteous homage to Jerry Goldsmith’s original Planet of the Apes (1968) score within the picture’s ornamental soundtrack.

If this new Apes saga were a paperback, Rise of the Planet of the Apes acts merely as an introduction, whereas Dawn of the Planet of the Apes works as a strong second outing, adding a few more chapters to the presumably lengthy tale, further enhancing the series, whilst surpassing its predecessor in almost every category. Confident, powerful and entertaining, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes succeeds as a rewarding sequel and a textbook example of dynamic science fiction filmmaking.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is released through 20th Century Fox Australia