Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

UK Release Date 17th July 2014
Director Matt Reeves
Starring Apes. Lots of Apes
Runtime 130 Minutes
Certificate 12A
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 31st August 2014

Rise of the Planet of the Apes kind of took me by surprise. To the point that I only watched it because I was stuck on a transatlantic flight. I’m not sure I got the best out of it on the tiny screen but it lingered in my mind for long enough to make me think that the series had legs despite Tim Burton’s overwrought and over complicated reboot. Having said that, I haven’t watched it since and the majority of the details escape me, barring the knowledge that Andy Serkis’ Caesar was last seen fleeing for the hills....

Three years (real time) and ten winters (movie time) later, we wash up at Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Brought to us by promising Cloverfield and Let Me In helmer Matt Reeves, this one picks up with Caesar’s now expanded ape tribe, living peacefully and chasing down prey in spectacular fashion where nature has taken back the outskirts of San Francisco. A brief montage of news footage over the opening credits fills us in on the genetically created plague that has wiped out the majority of mankind sense Rise, leaving the planet seemingly empty for the immune apes.

The apes peace and quiet in their King Kong-esque spiky fenced village of course cannot last and soon the remnants of mankind pitch up accidentally on their doorstep, desperate to get a nearby hydroelectric dam up and running having exhausted their nuclear and petrol fuel supplies. By this stage, the apes have learned to sign and have started to embrace spoken language, much to the astonishment of the humans.

Dawn really does start in spectacular fashion. A deer hunt is signalled as the apes line the trees above the hapless animals and all hell breaks loose. CGI animals thunder across the screen as they fly through the air and through the forest, culminating in a fight between Caesar’s son Blue Eyes and a superbly rendered bear. It’s an impressive start for two reasons; one, it really will knock your socks off with its brutal, soaking fur detail and two, it kicks the whole film off by spending time with the apes. Dawn you see is very definitely not putting the humans first, this is the apes time and the entire film moves forward from this surprisingly effective angle.

The other major achievement of the opening sequence is that it quickly gets you used to the incredibly clever CGI and makeup used to render the animals in the movie. By the time the humans show up, you’ve completely bought the apes and don’t for a second differentiate between the special effects on screen and the human actors. I swear at times, I could actually smell the soaking fur on the backs of the apes the effects are that good. It’s very difficult to judge where Andy Serkis ends and Caesar’s digital self begins but all else being equal, it’s a truly impressive performance and one that has rightly led to questions about qualifications for awards.

The humans inevitably fare less well in the performance stakes but to be honest, they are merely bit part players beside the wonderful roster of apes. Jason Clarke is solid and earnest as the nominal leader of the more liberal section of the human contingent, Malcolm, and Keri Russell does what she needs to as Ellie, Malcolm’s partner (any love interest is played down to the point of wondering whether they are together or not). Kodi Smit-McPhee completes a somewhat awkward triangle of a family unit as the wistful one who sketches and reads comic books to the apes. Beyond that, the only other human characters of any note are Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, fulfilling the fire and brimstone leader role and some bloke who has to go with the human away team because he used to work for the power company. You can probably guess who sends the whole operation south with his hatred of apes…

Back at the more interesting camp, the apes are a fully realised family. Caesar has a partner who gives birth to Blue Eyes’ brother and then falls ill and Toby Kebbell’s snarling Koba is determined to make the humans pay for the horrific experiments they conducted on him in captivity. The movie seems far more at home fleshing out the apes motivations than it ever does with the humans and it makes a good job of making what is essentially a battle over resources exceptionally tense, despite occasionally falling back on movie cliches such as the obvious bad apple hiding a gun for use later.

The Apes series has long since abandoned it’s twisty-turny roots and is now on far more solid sci-fi 'what if' ground and it’s a welcome move. The one thing that surprised me above all about this intelligent, thoughtful movie was just how touching it was. Late on in the film when Caesar is injured, he directs the human team towards a house on a hill, instantly recognisable as James’ Franco’s character’s house from the previous movie. It’s a marvellously touching moment as Caesar’s desperate desire to retreat to where he essentially grew up transcends his race and brings him back to his comfortable human existence.

And around all this, Reeves paces the movie well. There is a lot to pack in here and at 130 minutes, this isn’t a short film but I suspect the only audience who would find it lagging were those who thought they were heading for a pure summer action blockbuster. This isn’t that film, it’s far too considered and far too thoughtful for that. Having said that, when Reeves unleashes the action, it’s breathtaking to behold. Aside form the aforementioned hunt, we also get a full on ape assault on the humans’ fortress, including a superbly realised shot from the point of view of a tank cannon turret, spinning out of control as the vehicle is overrun by apes. It could easily have come across as gimmicky but in Reeves’ hands, you feel completely thrown into the action and the level of chaos and disorientation is portrayed perfectly.

There are moments when the film looks uncomfortable with itself, particularly when its trying to deal  with its central human trio but overall Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a superb addition to the series. Building on well established ideas with a brisk setup and using excellent state-of-the-art effects to establish a wholly believable world, Reeves delivers a thoughtful, emotional, action filled movie that will leave you thanking Hollywood for the fact that he is now attached to a third Apes movie. If it’s anywhere near the quality of this one, I can’t wait. 

Check out the trailer here.

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