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'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes': Film Review

8:45 AM PDT 6/28/2014 by Todd McCarthy

The Bottom Line

These apes rule.

Opens

July 11 (20th Century Fox)

Cast

Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell

Director

Matt Reeves

Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman and Keri Russell star in Matt Reeves' follow-up to the 2011 reboot.

A gripping account of interspecies conflict, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes manages to do at least three things exceptionally well that are hard enough to pull off individually: Maintain a simmering level of tension without letup for two hours, seriously improve on a very good first entry in a franchise and produce a powerful humanistic statement using a significantly simian cast of characters. In the annals of sequels, Dawn is to Rise of the Planet of the Apes what The Empire Strikes Back was to Star Wars — it’s that much better.  A mainstream blockbuster with a lot on its mind, director Matt Reeves' synthesis of brains and brawn kicks it over the goalposts and out of the stadium, suggesting a box-office haul that will surely exceed the $482 million globally grossed by the 2011 franchise reboot. The film’s official world premiere took place on June 26 in San Francisco

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Whatever anyone might think about the film as a whole, there is no question that Andy Serkis gives the most expressive, soulful, deeply felt performance of a non-human character the big screen has ever offered as the mature Caesar, the ape raised from childhood in captivity who now leads a band of a couple of thousand encamped in the Muir Woods north of San Francisco. His Roman namesake notwithstanding, the historical figure Caesar most resembles is none other than Abraham Lincoln, a wise, compassionate fellow with the common touch, old before his time, his eyes weary from all the suffering he’s seen, a peaceful sort by nature forced by fate to lead his followers in wartime and who is strong enough physically to take on, if pressed, any adversary.

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The situation at the outset is plenty clear, so that even those who missed Rise will have no trouble quickly engaging with the action here. In the wake of the massive ape escape from the Gen-Sys Labs and their tear through San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County, the virulent Simian Virus has, over the course of a decade, killed the vast majority of Earth’s human population and left the rest desperate to survive in a world that, among previous dystopian depictions, is not unlike that of Kevin Costner’s little-loved but intermittently resonant The Postman.

The members of Caesar’s community are, you might say, multiethnic; in addition to the dominant apes, there are orangutans, gorillas and bonobos, among others. They communicate mostly through a graceful, shorthand sort of sign language that is niftily translated via subtitles. Some of them are also expert horsemen, as seen in a startling initial action scene in which apes, darting from tree to tree as well as on land, make a savage attack on some elk and then battle a large bear.

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Although their homemade compound is a makeshift mess, the world they inhabit is gorgeous; watching the film in 3D, you’re enveloped by dark, thick greens, wet leaves, clouds, mist and moisture (although completely convincing as Northern California, these scenes were mostly shot in forests near Vancouver and New Orleans). Much has been and will be made of the fact that this is the first time that performance capture 3D has been accomplished in practical settings rather than in a studio; the result is unquestionably stunning, just as the sight of up to 50 actors at a time running around in monkey suits is made to look entirely believable.

It’s been a long time since the apes have seen any humans, the few of the latter that remain locally having hunkered down in a decimated, foliage-covered San Francisco amassing weapons at the armory and trying to restore electrical power. This effort leads a small troupe led by cautious former architect and widower Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his nurse girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell) and Malcolm’s insecure teen son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to locate a dam in ape territory, a treacherous undertaking that produces startling revelations on both sides; the apes are upset to find that humans even still exist, while the latter are shocked to learn that apes can talk.

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Although there is mistrust all around, Caesar arbitrates a truce, but factional fissures quickly appear. Although guns are supposed to be kept locked up, some trigger-happy types can’t help themselves, while one ape in particular, Koba (Toby Kebbell), who was a lab monkey in Rise, is a rabble-rouser for whom the only good human is a dead human. How each faction struggles to keep its own wayward members in line produces just as much consternation and suspense as does the bigger conflict between the separate species.

This aspect of the excellent screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (the latter two the married co-writers and co-producers of Rise) emits grim but timely echoes of any number of contemporary societies coping with conflicts between moderate and extremist elements. It also leads, consciously or not, to reverberations that go as far back as Jean Renoir’s great Grand Illusion, which stressed how the same classes of people in opposing nations can have far more in common than do different classes within the same country. So stated, the philosophical current in Rise runs entirely contrary to the bad species/good species opposition posited by Pierre Boulle in his mother lode 1963 novel that has been mined for great riches by an initial five-film series beginning in 1968, Tim Burton’s best-forgotten 2001 version, two TV series and now this new incarnation, from which more can surely be expected.

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With a wary truce being maintained while the humans try to get the dam up and running again to illuminate San Francisco and establish contact with the outside world, the worst occurs; the great Caesar, thought dead, is replaced by Koba, the scarred, milky-eyed warmonger who imposes himself by intimidation and force. An initial ape foray into the city is shocking and the wanton mass violence that soon follows is just a tightly focused and beautifully staged version of events that keep happening with increasing regularity in poorly ruled areas of the world when guys with guns see a shot at power.

There is no human equivalent to the thuggish Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; Homo sapiens are nervously on the defensive here, with minimal resources and uncertain what to expect. Most prominent among them is Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), whose barely referenced background as a lawman does nothing to prepare him for the challenge of fighting an army of artillery-toting apes led by a hate-spewing species supremacist. The big showdown plays out in a trashed rendition of California and Market streets in downtown San Francisco (Godzilla is nowhere in sight) and features quite a few frightening, suspenseful and just plain awesome sights.

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As does the film as a whole. Reeves, whose promising work on Cloverfield and significantly better handling of Let Me In were just so much batting practice for what he does here, creates a fine dramatic balance between big scenes and small, large-scale action and intimate moments, while never allowing the nervous energy to flag.

Without pummeling the viewer, the only thing so many action, big-budget-oriented directors seem to know how to do these days, Reeves delivers the goods with a fluid sense of imagery and an intelligence more philosophical than geeky or scientific.

As far as the acting is concerned, the apes have it. Well practiced in this sort of thing, Serkis outdoes himself here with a performance suffused in sage humanity; if there’s to be another word for it, it hasn’t been invented yet. Kebbell strongly charts the slow but sure way Koba gathers his nerve to oppose and finally depose the widely admired Caesar. Clarke, Russell, Smit-McPhee and Oldman are good, sometimes unexpected choices for their roles and are spared having to spew stupid “Oh my God!” dialogue.

The film is lustrously beautiful, shot by Michael Seresin in masterfully controlled tones that are at once muted and vibrant. The no-doubt extensive CGI effects overseen by master visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, mesh nearly seamlessly with the real backgrounds, and the sense of place contributed by James Chinlund’s production design is strong both in the country and city. Michael Giacchino’s vigorous score is another big plus.
 
Production company: Chernin Entertainment
Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Jon Eyez, Enrique Murciano,
Keir O’Donnell, Kevin Rankin, Jocko Sims
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenwriters: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, based on
characters created by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Producers: Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Executive producers: Thomas M. Hammel, Mark Bomback
Director of photography: Michael Seresin
Production designer: James Chinlund
Editors: William Hoy, Stan Selfas
Music: Michael Giacchino
Senior visual effects supervisor: Joe Letteri
Visual effects supervisor: Dan Lemmon

Rated PG-13, 130 minutes