Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (United States, 2014)

July 10, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Poster

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not only a solid dystopian-flavored science fiction film in its own right but it elevates the stock of its immediate predecessor in the Planet of the Apes franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. By adding to the ongoing storyline and propelling it forward, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes transforms the rushed ending of the 2011 film into a pause rather than an awkward stopping point. This installment inches events closer to a merge point with 1968's Planet of the Apes while maintaining its own unique identity. It is in every way superior to Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

The narrative is structured like a Shakespearean tragedy; it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that Julius Caesar is an inspiration (for obvious reasons). As is the case with the other Planet of the Apes movies, the story is allegorical, but there's no sense of preaching or heavy-handedness. The movie makes its points about the destructiveness of racial hatred in an organic fashion. And, unlike Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which did a poor job developing the human characters, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes fleshes out personalities for both the people and the apes.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins an unspecified period after the conclusion of its predecessor. Humankind, ravaged by a virus and the lawlessness that arose in its wake, has lost its position of prominence atop the global food chain. The collapse of civilization has resulted in a fragmented, primitive society; a band in San Francisco under the leadership of two survivors, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), struggles to regain some of what was lost. Their immediate goal is to restore the power grid; to do that, however, they must venture into Muir Woods where the Apes, still led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), have become increasingly advanced and sophisticated. Caesar has learned speech (a skill soon mastered by others). Men and apes clash and, while the moderate elements in each species struggle to broker an agreement to promote mutual cooperation and forestall a war, the more extreme elements seek only one thing: the annihilation of their opponents.

It's refreshing to see a big-budget summer movie that's more interested in telling a story than cluttering up the screen with explosions and deadening the mind with a lobotomized spectacle. That's not to say Dawn of the Planet of the Apes lacks visual flair. In fact, it features some of the best special effects in any recent motion picture. Not for a moment will anyone doubt that the apes are real. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) keeps the camera mobile but not in a way that's likely to induce motion sickness. He favors long, sweeping shots and occasionally employs atypical points-of-view. This allows Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to boast a fresh look; it doesn't feel like a clone of every other summer tent pole motion picture.

A few words must be written about Andy Serkis' contribution. The unsung actor, who has given life to such memorable characters as Gollum and King Kong, deserves a lion's share of the credit for making Ceasar the most compelling character in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar is a remarkable creation - the melding of human acting and computer generated imagery. It's noteworthy that this iteration of the character has emerged from the long shadow cast by Roddy McDowell, who played Caesar in two of the early 1970s Planet of the Apes movies (Conquest and Battle). One can argue whether Serkis is deserving of a Best Actor nomination for his work here but his overall importance to genre films since the turn of the century is undeniable and some kind of special Oscar is unquestionably deserved.

People don't make their first appearance in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes until 15 minutes have elapsed. The film's early scenes focus on establishing the ape characters and their society. In addition to Caesar, key simian players include Maurice the orangutan; Caesar's grown son, Blue Eyes; and the embittered Koba. The humans are represented by Malcolm and his compatriots: Ellie (Keri Russell), Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Carver (Kirk Acevedo). The filmmakers cannily give each human a scene designed to provide depth and breadth to an initially one-dimensional character. With Oldman's Dreyfus, for example, there's a poignant moment in which his computer returns to life for the first time since the apocalypse and he's able to view photographs of his dead family.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes contains action - there is a lengthy battle sequence that absorbs about 20% of the running time - but this is more about world building and storytelling than it is about mixing adrenaline and testosterone cocktails. Especially during the first hour, the movie takes its time. It doesn't rush headlong into the central conflict. This chapter ends on a satisfying (if downbeat) note that promises another sequel. Perhaps most importantly, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes becomes the first Planet of the Apes movie made in the last 45 years to merit mention alongside the original in terms of storytelling aptitude and big screen prowess.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2014-07-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1