DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Andy Serkis, directed by Matt Reeves (130 min.)
Dawn of The Planet of The Apes is not only a sequel that enhances and improves upon the origin story from 2011, it is one of the best films of 2014. That seems silly to say about a film revolving around CGI Simians and their fight against desperate humans, and it very well could have been that way. That is the magic of the film, the way it manages to counter what could be a campy premise and could easily devolve into corny farce with real, raw emotion, great performances (both human and ape, though the latter dominates here), compelling narrative threads, and thrilling action in perfect harmony with moments of important and patient development. I was blown away.
The “first” film in this series, Rise of The Planet of The Apes, was a prequel set up to bridge the gap between what happened in the present day and what Charlton Heston found in the true first film in the franchise, the 1968 classic. The success and quality of that picture leads us to Dawn, and ten years after the apes stormed the Golden Gate Bridge and disappeared into the forests of Northern California. In this near future, a virus – labeled the “Simian Flu” – has spread among the humans, nearly wiping them off the planet except for a few pockets of desperate survivors immune to the disease. Meanwhile, the ape society that fled into the Redwoods has evolved even further, speaking more, thinking more, developing into a primitive tribal society in the foothills of the region. They have a caste system reminiscent of the original Planet of The Apes where the Gorillas are the muscle, the chimpanzees common society, and the Orangutans the educators and philosophers.
This raw societal dynamic is still led by Caesar, the focal point of the first film who has grown into a strong and respected leader of the apes. Caesar is, by virtue of the testing from Rise, the most evolved and thoughtful of the apes and is also a family man with a… wife?... a young impressionable son and a new baby boy. Caesar still has some fond memories of the humans while his second in command, the scarred and bitter Koba, holds nothing but hatred. None of these apes, who communicate through sign language and sparse dialogue, have seen a human in two years. So when a ragtag group of explorers pop up on the outskirts of their village, the society is upset and becomes somewhat divided.
The humans come from downtown San Francisco where a few hundred survivors have collected. This broken society is led by Dreyfus, played sparingly by Gary Oldman. The explorers who stumble upon the ape village are simply trying to get to a nearby dam to see if they can use its power to restore downtown Frisco. The de facto leader of this group is Malcolm, played with fantastic gravitas by Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke. He, along with his son and his girlfriend (both lost their significant others in the plague), Ellie (Keri Russell), and a few more humans must talk their way through Caesar’s society in order to get the power they need. The relationship works, tentatively, at first. Caesar and Malcolm develop trust with one another, and learn about each other. But there is distrust and dissention among the ranks in both the human and Simian camp, and soon a double cross leads to an all out war between the two sides.
It is amazing to me the way director Matt Reeves and the screenwriters and effects crew are able to construct this film to work on so many levels. Not once are the apes farcical or goofy, they are completely believable. And not only that, even though the human actors are wonderful in their roles, there is an honest and undeniable emotional attachment to these apes. Caesar and his family are paramount to this incredibly engaging journey. There are deep philosophical elements to the story about trust and even xenophobia, and stories about friendship and what it means to lead. The action is paced perfectly, with enough time in between the big set pieces and shootouts to truly engage with characters both human and CGI. There are moments here, and shots from cinematographer Michael Seresin, which invoke the awe and wonder of early Spielberg fantasy films, especially a lovely musical moment in the forest at an abandoned gas station lit up among the greenery.
As good as Rise of The Planet of The Apes was, Dawn of The Planet of The Apes is that much better, in virtually every way. The characters are smart and soulful, and there are sequences that engage us more than any summer blockbuster should do. This is an example of perfect balance in a film that is bigger than most, and could have suffered from the bloat and noise and annoyances of a certain robot franchise. Naturally these prequel films will be, at the least, a trilogy, and the set up is in place for a third entry. Bring on Battle of The Planet of The Apes.