It’s a remarkable occurrence when the prominent promotional image of the film happens to be the principal opening shot. So when Ceasar’s distinguished grimace, with white and red warrior paint, kicks off the film it’s apparent that we might just get significantly more than the marketingcampaign has shown us. Indeed, the sequel to a prequel of a nearly fifty year old franchise, is without a doubt the summer’s best blockbuster for its elaborate telling of a rather small story. Much like its protagonist, rendered from the computer, there’s a lot more soul, meaning and amusement behind the apocalyptic façade than anticipated. However, by the time the screen turns black the movie hasn’t entirely wiped the taste of a Hollywood franchise installment away.
There’s reason for celebration now that filmmakers are allowed to turn easily marketed films, which are destined to be the only ones suitable as big box-office fare, into genuinely good movies. The trend started long ago, but recent years have turned it into an expectation rather than a surprise. This year alone saw The Lego Movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Maleficent outgrow what, in concept, were mandatory safe bets on existing property. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes diverges in title alone so little from its predecessor, anyone purchasing a ticket knows this is hardly the last stop on the road to dropping the first noun. One with a dictionary might even argue the Dawn would work better *before* the Rise. In any case, despite promising very little movement in the large story, modern day franchises make the road just as rewarding as the distant destination.
What Dawn in essence is, is a powerful confrontation of forces and a series of unfortunate events that daftly show the inevitability of war for its own sake. It uses its premise so exceedingly well that it’s insulting to render the movie useless. In its own right, this is a moving, if not important, display of the casualties of clashing groups. More than any human war drama, Dawn presents us with the complications of living peacefully when land is at stake, cultures are different and mutual trust is unthinkable. In this case, living peacefully, if not seperately, is exactly what the two starring species have done for years since the outbreak of the virus. The thrilling and masterfully teasing graphics that played during the credits of Rise of the Planet of the Apes are now dutifully explained in the prologue. Caesar (Andy Serkis) has a family now and is leading the ever growing group of apes in the Red Woods with the scarred Koba (Toby Kebbell) and the wise Maurice (Karin Konoval) on his side. As the primates ponder if man is still alive, a small group of human survivors, who are ostensibly immune, hold fort on the other side of the Golden Gate. Here Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) keep the community going. The film’s main conflict is the need for the humans to have power, with their most promising chance being an old dam, located in the woods. Malcolm, his family, including Ellie (Keri Russell) and his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and some engineers and fighters head into the apes’ territory. Every time the species meet throughout the film there’s a different outcome, creating tension and suspense out of the hope that just maybe the franchise isn’t heading to the downfall of mankind. Exactly this is what Dawn uses optimally. It doesn’t hide its the looming end game, it plays with it masterfully to the point the audience stops expecting and surrenders itself to the total domination of the story.
The story is small scaled in the sense that it mostly plays out over a nearly abandoned San Fransisco. The key players being the aforementioned characters, with conflicts both between the two races and among each own. In that respect, Dawn feels out of balance. While witnessing the carefully constructed descendence into war, none of the characters, not even Caesar, rise above their importance to the story. This might be a problem of continuance. Had the franchise not get rid of James Franco, the bond between the humans and apes would’ve meant a lot more. We’ve watched Caesar grow up, but returning to him being the adored leader and family man, he’s unrecognizable. Despite some small efforts of the film to refer back to Rise, the sequel hardly requires that movie at all. If anything, its the lack of initial sympathy for the character, as he stumbles in his leadership, that’s plaguing much of the narrative. In that respect, their functionality over personality, might also be a structural problem of keeping the franchise going, while leaving story for sequels, without alienating the masses. Given that, yes, Caesar’s inherently good, but either he’s telling his minions to blindly do his bidding or he’s as much of a pawn in the game as any of them. The big twist halfway through the movie is an excellent one, but even that fails to truly develop the likes of Koba, Malcolm or Caesar’s son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) in their own right. The growing conflict between Koba and Caesar builds up rather nicely only to take uncharacteristic large jumps to advance the story, not the characters’ journeys. This is indeed a grand game of power, with nice parallels, intriguing different opinions and perfect examples of actions and consequences. Unfortunately, such a strong story is at the price of emotional resonance with the players. For example, Dreyfus’ role is significant, but the only reveal of his personality, the only scene in which Oldman truly gets his spotlight, is brief and random.
Unlike, say, Avatar, the graphics and motion-capture here strive to perform actual living creatures. These aren’t zombies, robots or aliens, they’re creatures most of us have layed eyes on in real life. So for a live-action movie to put a group of these mammals front and center for a significant amount of time, without fearing skepticism of the audience, is a rare feat. One the movie performs stunningly. Not only do Caesar and his companions look realistic, they show off ranges of emotions that enhance the limited dialogue, as the apes speak mostly in sign language. It’s this impressive technical accomplishment that never ceases to astonish. Regardless of lighting, action or interaction with real humans or objects, the apes look beautiful. Add some wonderful scenery, from the rainy woods to the abandoned city, and you have a gorgeous film. A cinematographic highlight is the 360 view from a tank as a battle rages on. The rather recognizable theme from Michael Giacchino, that’s prominent for much of the movie, succeeds at the movies’ premise to build tension in slow scenes, but somehow feels a tad too cartoonish during the darker, more violent moments.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not the movies’ best year in the least, but it is a interestingly crafted telling of conflict between species. Anyone would do wise to understand the lesson the movie is teaching and apply it to news headlines. It’s also mostly free of social commentary as the bleak and painful outlook of events during the film passes along the message well enough on its own. What the movie is not, is a recognizable continuance of the rebooted franchise. Some characters are back, and despite their performers best efforts through technology, they are not necessarily exactly who we remember. For every character and, with the likes of Oldman and Russell, actor, that the movie falls short on, for every time it’s apparent that the movie has no wish to ignore its duties as a franchise installment and for every convenient plot twist that puts relationships on the back burner, the movie does another thing right. It delivers on the franchise promise of intelligent story over blatant action. It continues the trend of marketable movies being captivating as well. It also makes sure, that for once, you don’t want humanity to win.
Directed by Matt Reeves
Produced by Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
with Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman
Released July 11, 2014