Years after the near fall of humanity through a man-made virus, Caesar’s intelligent ape tribe live a simple existence in the woodlands of San Francisco. Believing humans to be extinct the apes are taken aback when a large human contingency takes residence near Golden Gate Bridge, intent on using a nearby power station to restore electricity. A shaky alliance is met but fear and distrust permeate on both sides eventually boiling to a fever pitch to which something must give.
Tim Burton’s lacklustre 2001 attempt to ‘re-imagine’ the Planet of the Apes franchise, conversely sank it to the point where almost no one cared for it any more, so it was with no small amount of scepticism that most took a chance on the 2011 attempt to reboot the franchise.
Surprisingly this reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, took the origin of the smart apes as its focal point, incorporating cutting edge CG and solid writing to produce a deceptively low-key film (for the first two acts at least) with genuine heart and fully three dimensional characters on the part of the humans AND the unspeaking apes.
So successful was it in winning over its audience that its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, has almost the opposite issue to contend with, it has to satisfy an audience that awaits it with high expectations.
With the exit of original director, Rupert Wyatt, Dawn has been trusted to the relatively safe hands of Cloverfield and Let Me In’s Matt Reeves. In fact, and rather bravely, the ONLY carry-over from Rise is actor Andy Serkis, reprising his remarkable physical turn as lead ape, Caesar, this time joined by equally talented British actor, Toby Kebbell, doing no less a brilliant job in the antagonistic role of Koba. Filling the human roles are Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and continuing his run on subtle but authoritative characters, Gary Oldman.
Dawn’s next brave move is following an opening credit sequence that portrays the fall of humanity to contagion and in-fighting with a lengthy dialogueless day-in-the-life situation from the apes’ point of view, which cleverly relays everything we need to know about the apes, from both their origins (negating the requirement to see the previous instalment first) and their subsequent progression. Again, the ape characters are remarkable; the CG has seen a subtle but significant step-up, which combined with the wonderful physical performances has rendered them even more believable, just about disposing of that eerie zombie eyed look that used to be the bane of fully CG characters once and for all.
The humans too have been well written, as with the apes, each propelled by personal motivations making all their actions, if not condonable, then certainly understandable, and here is where the true brilliance of the film lies; as with much great science fiction, it deftly uses its outlandish set-up to provide a microcosm that accurately holds a mirror up to the human condition.
Through a simplified lens and hefty allegory we explore what happens when a two unfamiliar powers meet, colonial, tribal or otherwise, and then the dangers of fear-based fanatical leadership. It’s all pretty serious stuff, leaving little room for the smiles and whimsy of Rise, and it has to be stated that due to this and the lack of the kind of exhilarating action climax of that first film, Dawn can’t be said to be more ‘entertaining’, though it is better in almost every other respect.
Its unflinchingly realistic view on how easily reason can be defeated by fear, distrust and the sense of superiority is, as is proved by human history, both damning and heart achingly tragic, most especially as it governs the course of history, to many, many people’s regret.
Don’t go away with the wrong impression though, there are many brilliantly played out action sequences, and the third act is satisfying in it’s own way, there’s just no single occurrence that rivals the superior Golden Gate Bridge siege from Rise, on the flip side it’s shed that film’s more puerile tropes, like the need to reference dialogue snippets from the original Planet of the Apes, for instance.
All in all Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a classy, mature and layered summer blockbuster that is fantastically realised in every way, its simple story given relevance and resonance by excellently written and performed characters that make the whole affaire greater than the sum of its already commendable parts. Highly recommended.
B grade – for originality
A- grade – for storytelling
A grade – for acting
A grade – for visuals
Overall grade – A-