Thoughts on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was one of 2011’s biggest surprises. Combining impressive technological advances in motion capture, along with Andy Serkis’ masterful performance as Caesar, and a touching, yet exciting script, it breathed life back into a franchise many thought long dead. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continues this trend, improving on everything that made the first movie so enjoyable and showcasing the very best of what the science fiction has to offer.
As with all good science fiction, Dawn presents themes ripe with potential for philosophical discussion. It has been ten years since the events of Rise and in that time the same virus that made the apes hyper intelligent has decimated mankind. Caesar, played once again by the ridiculously talented and woefully underappreciated Andy Serkis, has succeeded in creating an ape community in the Redwoods of San Francisco; one which has a social hierarchy and its own set of governing laws such as, “Ape Not Kill Ape.” Though the settlement has lived in relative peace, Caesar’s first born son, Blue Eyes (played by Nick Thurston) feels cloistered and untrusted due to his youth. He has taken to following Koba (played by Toby Kebbell), Caesar’s scarred second in command. A former lab bonobo, Koba is deeply traumatized and emotionally crippled; yet he seems to have found a place of some distinction among the apes at the beginning of the film. However, his hatred of humans for his treatment leads him to questioning Caesar’s judgment when a pair of apes encounter a group of humans in the woods. Not desiring violence, Caesar allows them to leave, but orders them not to return.
Malcolm, played by the extremely talented Jason Clarke, is one of the leaders of San Francisco’s last remaining human colony, made up of those who are immune to what they call the, “Simian Flu.” They are about to run out of fuel and the only other possible source of power is a hydroelectric damn located within the apes’ territory. The colony’s other leader, Dreyfus, played by the always reliable Gary Oldman, believes that the only way to proceed is to exterminate the apes, stating that they’re “just animals.” Malcolm persuades Dreyfus to give him three days to make contact with Caesar and hopefully gain permission to restart the dam.
Thus begins the tragic chain of events that will lead to the Planet of the Apes that Charlton Heston’s George Taylor encounters in the future. I will spoil no more, but I will go so far as to say what follows is downright Shakespearian. There is something classically tragic about the events of this film; for every brief moment of happiness, there are four times that of melancholy. The direness of the situation presented is never downplayed, but also never obvious or ham-handed in its delivery. As with all great genre pictures, throughout the two plus hours of this film, the ridiculousness of apes riding horses and wielding machine guns will never cross your mind. That is the true achievement of this film: it is succeeds in being completely earnest and also delivering an emotional story with relatable characters.
As with the first film, Andy Serkis is the real star here. Having pioneered motion capture performance in the Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and more, it is no surprise that Serkis once again astounds as Caesar, who has grown into a complex, multi-layered character. He has the gravitas of a military leader, but also possesses a sense of humility and a desire for peace. As events spiral out of control, you can see the pain in his eyes and the sadness that accompanies it when he’s forced to make difficult decisions. The nuances that Serkis gives to Caesar show once again that the man is a master of his craft and his emotional, stirring performance here will no doubt reignite the debate of whether or not Serkis deserves a Best Actor nod for his efforts (Spoilers: He does).
Yet Serkis is not the only highlight of this film. Toby Kebbell matches the gravitas of Serkis’ Caesar with the manic rage of Koba. Though loyal to Caesar for freeing him from his life as a lab experiment, Koba has begun to develop doubts about Caesar’s ability to lead the apes when he not only spares the humans they encounter, but agrees to help them. Koba’s hatred of humans is apparent, but it is portrayed in a realistic manner; the same could be said for Koba’s frustration at being at odds with Caesar, his liberator and leader. He’s a complex character and Kebbell’s performance captures Koba’s damaged psyche in a truly terrifying and memorable way. Once Koba is unleashed, the film shifts gears and begins building towards its terrific, heartbreaking finale.
Though the performances are memorable, I would be remiss not to mention the amazing work that Weta Digital has done on this film. I thought the apes in Rise could not get any more realistic; I was wrong. Dawn is a benchmark in digital effects and I do not say that lightly. Weta’s efforts did the rare thing that all great films do, it made me believe what I was watching. The colony of apes looked entirely real and there was never a scene nor moment where I felt pulled from the experience by subpar CG. If these people do not win an Oscar for this, I may pound my fists on the ground and yell.
The beauty of these digital creations is showcased by the work of cinematographer Michael Seresin and director Matt Reeves, who continues to build on his impressive career, having already directed 2008’s seminal Cloverfield and 2010’s impressive Let Me In. Due to their efforts, Dawn is a work of cinematic excellence, and though Reeves made a film that’s aesthetically pleasing, he also delivered on the all-important emotional aspect that kept me entranced the entire time.
Since I avoided using obvious puns this entire post, I guess I can end with one: this film is bananas. Go see it.

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