Prior to the release of Rise of The Planet of The Apes in 2011, expectations were low for the reboot. The Tim Burton film had killed the franchise back in 2001 and while the reboot looked interesting, it seemed more like a showcase for great special effects over anything else. Anchored by a brilliant direction and an outstanding performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar, Rise of The Planet of The Apes was one if not the biggest surprise of 2011. It reignited the franchise by presenting us with one of the most affecting, exhilarating and memorable origin stories. Three years later and Dawn of The Planet of the Apes arrives with high expectations across the board. Fortunately, this sequel manages to surpass the first one in every possible way.
Following Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) uprising, the human race was hit with deadly virus called the Simian Flu. It effectively killed the majority of the human population. Years have passed since then and Caesar has build a home in the forest with all the other apes. Now a father of two, Caesar is living a peaceful life and humans have not been sighted in a long time. However, after a few humans led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) stumble upon the apes and are told to never return, tensions grow high between the small human colony in San Francisco and the apes. War is at their doorstep.
First and foremost, let’s discuss the absolutely incredible direction by Matt Reeves. Here’s a director whose last two films (Cloverfield and Let Me In) have been polarizing, but with each new film you can clearly see how Reeves is evolving as a director and gradually shaping his own distinctive style. What’s really beautiful to see in this film is the balance achieved between intimate moments and action beats. We spend a lot of time with the apes and see the politics at work within their community. It is fascinating and a brilliant choice to make, and one that is handled in a grounded way. The majority of the apes are fully-realized characters with actual thoughts, goals and flaws. We believe in this ape community and by focusing on their interactions and relationships with each other, we as an audience rapidly grow to care for them. We see their peaceful way of life and are upset by how the humans aim to jeopardize that. The apes are the good guys, while the humans are the baddies. That is the initial thought, but as the film progresses that notion is proven to be wrong.
The human community and the ape community are both flawed. Just like there are humans that want a peaceful solution, there are others who see violence as their only means of survival. This is mirrored in the ape community where not all apes share Caesar’s desire to coexist with humans without violence. There is dissonance in both camps, dissonance driven by a sea of past negative experiences that inevitably lead to war. I think people will be surprised by the various story twists that occur throughout the film. These twists, which are all handled in a carefully astute way, demonstrate that things aren’t black and white but instead these characters inhabit this massive grey area. It is too easy to say these are the good guys and these are the villains, it is braver and much more affecting to show that both camps are complicated, both camps are capable of peace and destruction. It’s really refreshing to see a blockbuster film take this stand and employ it in such an effective manner.
Enhancing the complicated nature of both humans and apes is the performances. To be honest, I think this is the first blockbuster film were all the principal performances are magnificent. In the human camp: Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee (holy shit, puberty!) all give effective performances. Clarke is the standout in that camp and what impresses me most about his performances is how beautifully expressive it is. Seeing his character go into the apes camp and visibly show how utterly frightened he was in that situation, goes a long way into establishing a degree of realism into the proceedings. Clarke successfully puts the audience within his situation and mind set. Even though he is perhaps the most honourable character in the film, Clarke’s Malcolm never feels preachy or like a goody two shoes. Instead, this is a man who has learned from past mistakes and is choosing to utilize understanding and companionship over violence. In the ape camp, the notable supporting characters are Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and Koba (Toby Kebbell). Similar to Clarke, the level of expression in these apes’ faces is astounding. Thurston and Kebbell communicate so much about the internal thought process of these apes through their body language that you understand their choices. There is a high degree of empathy at play here and it is really refreshing seeing characters act in true accordance to who they are, instead of being driven to do things because the plot requires it.
As most of us know, Andy Serkis is without a doubt the pioneer of motion-capture performances. His performance in the first Rise of the Planet of the Apes impressed so much that many people were adamant about him receiving an Oscar nomination. That didn’t happen but every time Serkis delivers a great motion-capture performance, which is most of the times really, the subject about what is considered “true” acting comes up. Detractors will say the special effects make the performance and not the actor. With motion-capture, I see the special effects as make-up, decoration that works for the performance. Just like he does in the first film, Serkis is able to embody Caesar beautifully and deliver a charismatic, intimate and memorable performance. Serkis’ Caesar is such a commanding presence throughout the film and seeing how the character changes, and learns from his circumstances further fleshes him out. He is even more interesting and heartbreaking this time around. I would love for him to receive an Oscar nomination, especially since it would cement the level of influence and acting range necessary to pull off a motion-capture performance. It is Serkis who drives the emotion in the film, it is Serkis who majestically makes us actually care about a group of CGI apes. How can we look at such powerful performance and say it isn’t real acting?
Apart from all the great performances, drama and themes explored in the film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes also has awesome action sequences. Director Matt Reeves stages the action in a comprehensive way, especially when you consider that almost every action scenes involves a sea of people. They’re pretty intricate scenes yet at no point are we confused as to what is happening. One of the way Reeves achieves this is by utilizing long takes. Action, for me, works better when it is presented with as few cuts as possible. Reeves lets the action breathe and develop within a single shot, like in the tank sequence, and the results are pretty spectacular. One thing I always talk about in regards to action in film is that action works better when the film is able to instil a sense of danger and high stakes. When you feel that the action has actual consequences, that’s when it is most effective. Director Matt Reeves knows this well and to be honest, this was one of the rare times were I actually felt bad about seeing a crowd of innocent people getting attacked. Reeves does such a good job in putting us within the thick of the events and establishing the significance of the action, that at times the violence feels like it does in real life: it feels wrong. Half of you is entertained by the spectacle and the other half feels bad that all these people are dying. This is a sentiment that I had never felt before in a blockbuster film and I applaud Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for making conscious about the violence depicted in film.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the best film I’ve seen this year. Much like the first one, this sequel totally blew me way. This is the type of blockbuster film that only comes once in a while. Directed beautifully by Matt Reeves, who by the way was replacement director, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes delivers a story filled with interesting, grounded and poignant characters. It examines the grey within humanity and relishes in demonstrating time and time again that people are complicated. They are driven by past experiences and while some choose to learn from years of mistakes, others see those mistakes as necessary paths in achieving what they want. This film is much more thoughtful and analytical than I thought it would be, and the best part of it is that at no point does it feel preachy or condescending. All of its ideas and elements are presented in a brilliant balance that results in an outstandingly memorable experience. The performances are great, the score by Michael Giacchino is excellent and evocative, and the action delivers the thrills and more. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the must-see films of 2014.