10 years have passed since the events of the preceding movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and we are presented with a vastly different landscape. Now residing in an elaborate wooden fort, all jagged and menacing, (I’m watching the film in 3D, so splinters of wood are flying at me perennially in the film) in the middle of the Californian forest, the apes are leading prosperous, peaceful lives. The humans have not been so lucky, and a virus has wiped out much of the human population. San Francisco is cut off from the rest of the world without the power needed from the hydroelectric dam (which by complete coincidence is situated by the Ape’s residence) to re-connect.
What ensues is a power struggle between the humans and the apes and the forces within both camps which threaten to disrupt the peaceful path that both Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes, and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the head of the human peace convoy, are attempting to lay out. Neither of these two characters wants war, acknowledging the unnecessary loss of life that will occur if war is incurred, but there would be no movie if the whole mission had gone along so smoothly.
The spoiler in the process comes from the presence of Caesar’s second in command – a beaten and bruised (physically and mentally) ape called Koba. Betrayal and war ensue.
Visually, the film is a feast. The landscapes are spectacularly immersive, from the aforementioned ape stronghold in the forest to the metropolitan jungle that crumbles and enslaves what used to be San Francisco and the echelons of the half built sky rise that stages the films fierce crescendo. Even more impressive is the CGI used in the film. The artistry on show required to produce such vivid and hyper realistic representations of the apes is awe inspiring. Newly-developed wireless motion capture gadgets were used to more easily record the performances of the ape actors, and its success is proven by the fact that the apes put in far more impressive performances than the humans in the film.
Jason Clarke has worked his way up the ladder admirably in key supporting roles in The Great Gatsby and Zero Dark Thirty. However, here he takes top billing and as Malcolm stands his ground well in the heated confrontations he has with Caesar. Clarke’s portrayal is quietly resilient; he makes a lot of what is ultimately a quite thin character. Unfortunately, the rest of the human characters are similarly weak, often coming across as a little bland and a touch one dimensional at times. We are told that Malcolm’s wife Ellie (Keri Russell) lost a daughter to the virus but the film never fully explores the impact that history and background can play on characters’ actions on the human side as it does on the side of the apes. Gary Oldman is woefully underused as Dreyfus, the leader of the remaining humans. The moment when Dreyfus breaks down after the power returns to recharge his IPad to display pictures of his presumed dead family is heart-breaking – a solitary tear runs down the lens of my 3D glasses. Such emotional gravity is expected from one of our nation’s finest actors, but we fail to truly empathize with his character, which lacks the required development needed to fully appeal to our emotions.
The humans may be underwhelming, but it is the story of the apes that as with Rise of the Planet of the Apes proves to be the films shining light. Andy Serkis is truly the master of motion capture and as with the first film, his performance is riveting. Strong and magnetic, Caesar is a powerful orator to which all the apes respect. Conflicting emotions rule his actions towards the humans who he has faith in but cannot help distrusting. Pressure also comes from his fellow Apes who become disillusioned with Caesar’s amiability towards the perceived enemy, the Humans. Caesars story arc is an intriguing one – subtly and well developed for what is ultimately a big budget blockbuster. Alongside Serkis, Toby Kebbel puts in a powerful performance as Koba, the Iago to Caesar’s Othello. Ruled by his thirst for hunger and his jealousy of Caesars power, Koba also has motive against Caesar’s pro-human plans, as he unlike Caesar was heavily abused by the humans when in captivity. He therefore has more weight placed in his distrust for the humans, and the film nicely plays out this balance between Caesars, positive experiences of the humans in the first film and how this impacts his actions and words in the film and Koba’s negative experience. The message is simple. If we mistreat Apes in laboratories, they may develop hyper intelligence and end up riding around crazed on a stallion while wildly firing an AK-47 at us.
Director Matt Reeves, in his first big budget film (the film cost around $170 million to make compared to the $25 million to make Cloverfield), has produced an impressive and enthralling blockbuster. Understandably, the third instalment in the franchise has already been announced with Reeves set to return. Rise of the Planet of the Apes enjoyed much critical and commercial success and it is not hard to see why Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has also. While it is a somewhat darker and more visceral experience, the film preserves the dazzling visuals and the ape’s robust storyline backgrounds that made its predecessor such a success.
In fact, I would say that the added grit is a welcome addition, successfully contributing to the whole dystopian effect of the virus ridden world that the film encompasses. They may have dropped lead actor, James Franco, from the franchise, but the producers with one eye on the franchise’s legacy make special efforts to regard what came before, with a return to the old house that Caesar grew up, without disillusioning those who had not seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes. If they can make one more film of this quality to complete the story arc, I am sure that they will have that legacy secured.