Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
The flagging Planet of the Apes franchise was on its last legs, before reboot/prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes delivered a solid jump-start to the franchise with some stunning visual effects and an arguably award-winning motion-capture performance from Andy Serkis. Fast forward three years, and the inevitable sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, has emerged as something very different indeed.
Dawn’s difference from its predecessor and summer blockbuster movies in general is perhaps the key factor in its success – it’s a sequel that starts off with ten or so minutes of silence as the apes hunt in the woods and communicate via subtitled sign-language, and for a film that was mainly promoted as an action film, it’s somewhat surprising to discover that all of the film’s action scenes are found well after the halfway point. Instead, Dawn’s first half is dedicated to the slow-burning build-up of tension between ape and man – unusual for a summer blockbuster for today, even if one of the sides is a little more interesting than the other.
Dawn features a lot of apes – several shots feature what seems like hundreds of apes out in the forests of San Francisco, and effects powerhouse Weta Digital step up to the new challenge with some stunning effects work. Almost all the ape scenes take place outside in the pouring rain, and the matted, soaked fur of the apes that’s seen throughout the movie looks so lifelike it’s hard to tell it’s just computer wizardry. The motion-capture performances are also excellent as usual – Andy Serkis, as the film’s undisputed lead, has more to do here than in Rise (certainly in terms of dialogue), and as usual he delivers a terrific performance as Caesar, now the benevolent leader of the apes. A surprise standout performance is also Toby Kebbell as Koba, Caesar’s resentful, tortured ally. Kebbell is somewhat frightening – a menacing figure with a scarred face and a chip on his shoulder who proves (surprisingly, as the trailers barely showed him) to be one of the most interesting characters of the film.
Over on the human side, like Rise, the human characters are just about adequate yet lack the character development and depth of the apes. Jason Clarke is a fine lead as Malcolm, engineer and advocate of a peaceful solution to the brewing conflict, but Malcolm feels like a generic ‘good guy’ stock character (complete with tragic past), making it hard for this viewer to truly invest in him. Malcolm’s family – played by Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee suffer the same character problems – they’re still above-average for a summer blockbuster, but feel conjured from the big book of stock supporting characters and never truly feel like original creations. Gary Oldman, disappointingly, is underused as Dreyfus, leader of the humans – he’s a little more interesting than the psychopath the trailers sold him as and a standout scene halfway through goes some way to providing depth – and suffers an abrupt personality switch at the climax when the film demands it. Oldman does a good job, with what he has, but the character’s meagre amount of screentime and odd climactic scene leaves Oldman as wasted in an otherwise well-balanced film.
The film’s action, when it does come well after the hour mark, is extremely well done; director Matt Reeves excels at showing the horrors of war and pulls off a few signature money shots too – a panning shot as an ape commandeers a tank across a fiery battlefield is a highlight (as is seeing an ape on a horse leaping straight through a wall of fire), and shows Reeves’ talent for not just character work and world-building, but blockbuster action.
Dawn’s final act is a surprisingly personal one – after mostly ignoring the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn loops back to its predecessor in a touching and appropriately intimate way – Dawn can be seen and enjoyed just as much if you haven’t seen Rise, but for those who have watched Rise the final half hour is very satisfying indeed (and even a little tear-jerking). Dawn concludes with an ominous, bleak cliffhanger that sums up the film’s approach to the usual summer blockbuster formula – it delivers the required sequel tease, but stays true to the themes of the film and contains a somewhat depressing exchange between characters that displays Dawn’s ability to sell the emotional moments just as well as the big action set-pieces. It’s not the most conclusive of endings, but still feels satisfying in both closing this second chapter and teeing up the big finale for the trilogy in 2016 – quite an achievement.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a unique, dramatic summer blockbuster that puts character ahead of the (still excellent) big action scenes, and contains some of the greatest effects work in film to date. It might stumble with the human characters, but Dawn has only raised this reviewer’s anticipation for the third and presumably final entry in two years time.