10 years after the events of the previous film, Rise..., the world has been devastated by the simian flu. Living in the woods outside San Francisco, Caesar (Sirkis) is now the leader of a large tribe of apes that lives in peace, not having encountered humans for the previous two years. This tranquility is shattered, however, when a group of humans are found in the woods. Led by Malcolm (Clarke), they seek access to a nearby dam, in order to restore power to the city, where a group of survivors are eking out an existence. Sympathetic to their plight, Caesar allows them access, but this raises the ire of Koba (Kebbell), a mutinous ape who despises humans.
2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes was that rarity: a reboot that expanded upon its source material rather than simply aping it (I'll get my coat!). Ever since Jurassic Park there had been speculation as to whether someday we might get a movie whose lead character was a CG creation. The Jar-Jar Binks debacle seemed to kill off the idea, but with Caesar, the ape played so brilliantly by the maestro of motion capture Andy Serkis in both movies, we now have just that. Serkis brings such life to the character that if he doesn't receive an Oscar nomination next February, it will be yet another example of what an outdated laughing stock the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has become.
Caesar is this movie's trump card, and there are countless moments that make you want to raise your fist and shout "Go Caesar!". It's the classic action movie trope of a man of peace forced to finally fight, but as this is part of the most intelligent and thoughtful sci-fi franchise Hollywood has ever granted us, things aren't so simple. As anyone who has seen the original films knows, when Caesar stands up for himself and his fellow apes, it's the beginning of the end.
Not since the aforementioned Jurassic Park have CG creations been integrated into a movie so efficiently. The ape creations are simply a wonder to behold, and they coalesce with the human actors flawlessly. The apes are also the film's most interesting characters, and this is ultimately Dawn's great weakness. The human characters are cardboard cutouts, and the movie badly misses a human villain. Initially we assume Gary Oldman might fill such a role, but his character barely appears onscreen, and when he does it's for purely expository purposes, little more than a device in order to have Clarke point a gun at his fellow man.
Instead, the villain of the movie is the angry ape Koba, who in one of the movie's best moments demonstrates "human work" by pointing out the many scars inflicted on him during his time in captivity. If you're familiar with the original franchise, you might expect him to amass a gorilla army, but gorillas and orangutans don't seem to figure just yet in this iteration. We do get a return of Maurice, the melancholy orangutan from the previous movie, who in a wonderful scene receives the gift of a book from Clarke's son, hinting at the role the species will assume in the ape society of the future.
As Rise... took its cue from 1972 sequel Conquest.., Dawn draws on the much maligned final installment, 1973's Battle.., and like that movie it features an extended action scene rendered flatly by a bland director. Matt Reeves injects little of the dynamism Rupert Wyatt gave us with the previous installment, but as this is ultimately a character drama, it's forgivable.
Rise... hinted at the beginning of a great new sci-fi series. While Dawn doesn't fully deliver on that promise, it's a must see for ape devotees, and in the current climate of superheroes and giant robots, it's admirable that Hollywood is willing to give us a sci-fi movie with both heart and brains. While the movie left me somewhat cold on this viewing, I suspect, and hope, I'll come to appreciate it more as one chapter in a successful series. Five movies and a TV show? Here's hoping.
Review by Eric Hillis
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