Dawn of the Planet of the Apes isn’t as big as I thought it would be. I don’t mean that in terms of summer blockbuster “bigness.” The film has plenty of huge set pieces and as many realistically rendered CG chimps as the eye can see. And I also don’t mean the movie doesn’t contain any big ideas because it certainly does — ideas on war and human nature and how we all can become animals when our very survival is in doubt. No, I mean the scope of the film is smaller than I figured. At the end of Rise of the Planet of Apes, the first movie in the rebooted series, a virus is released that is destined to kill off most of humanity. Taking place some years later, the team behind Dawn could have chosen to look at the fallout on a more global scale and given the apes a bigger foothold in the world they will eventually come to rule.
But instead Dawn tells a small isolated tale about two modest California communities. One is a fledgling group of human survivors just trying to hang on. The other a flourishing group of apes, who are led by Caesar (the first film’s breakout star) and growing smarter all of the time. They’re both going about their own business, unaware of the other’s existence, until the humans venture out in the woods in an attempt to get a hydroelectric damn back online. The dam just so happens to be where the apes have set up their home, leading to a territorial confrontation that could explode into war if both sides aren’t careful. That’s it. That’s the story. But from this simple setup springs an emotional and thought-provoking drama that traffics in resonate, honest-to-god science-fiction when so many movies today shoot for nothing greater than whiz-bang comic-book thrills.
Here is my favorite thing about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Some of the humans are heroes, while others could be classified as villains. And some of the apes are heroes and, again, others villains. But every character, man and ape, has a clear, consistent and defensible point of view. Oh, it’s obvious which side you’re supposed to root for — and doing so comes naturally, as we’ve already spent an entire film getting to know Caesar — but this is a movie where there are no easy answers once the bullets start to fly. In the real world, it’s always a struggle to maintain peace in areas consumed by distrust, and, like the best science-fiction, Dawn examines that problem through remarkable fantasy storytelling.
It is also a stunning looking film. Last time, we all marveled how Andy Serkis and the CG technicians were able to bring Caeser to life. He’s just as great a character this go-round, though in Dawn several of the supporting apes take a big step forward into the spotlight as well. Koba, the scarred ape with a deep mistrust of humans, and Blue Eyes, Caesar’s son, are both impressively realized, three-dimensional characters … and I’m not just talking about the FX here. Using very little dialogue, these characters express ambition, fear, doubt and regret in ways that buoy the film when they’re on screen. Credit the motion-capture performers. Credit the FX team. Credit director Matt Reeves. Credit everyone involved for the apes making an evolutionary leap from what we see in the first film.
It’s tough to compete with the apes, but the human actors not aided by CGI are fine here. None of them have showy, standout parts, but with Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kirk Acevedo each getting significant screen time, you can’t dispute that the movie is well cast. The set design is also gorgeous; this is one of the better post-apocalyptic worlds I’ve seen lately. The humans’ makeshift San Fransisco camp and Caesar’s tribe’s forest home couldn’t look more different from one another, but a lot of thought clearly went into designing each.
I am not big fan of the original Apes series. I have seen and enjoyed the original yet never felt compelled to watch the sequels except for catching a bit here and there on cable. But I am totally on board with this new Apes saga. Rise was a pleasant surprise, and now Dawn proves that not every big summer movie has to sacrifice intelligence and meaning in the name of pyrotechnics and quippy one-liners. This is one of the best big summer franchise pictures in recent memory, and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.