Review By: Bill Graham
Everything about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes seems to be about elevation. What started as a viral spread of infection in Rise of the Planet of the Apes has turned into a full-blown epidemic on a global scale that has resulted in billions of people dying, the dissolution of governments and the general collapse of mankind. The apes rule, at least in our limited scope that focuses on Caesar and his ape clan in Muir Woods. They ride horses, communicate with hand gestures, walk upright, and more. The action is more spectacular and the effects are absolutely breathtaking. Every time we’re given a close-up of any of the apes I was invited to study the face and see if I could find a flaw and not once did I see a misstep. Even after all of this, somehow I still prefer the setup and payoff of Rise but that doesn’t make me want to rave about Dawn any less.
Dawn picks up 10 years after the end of Rise and it makes for a perfect touching down point. While a lot of time has passed there doesn’t actually need to be a lot of detailed explanation of the interaction between Caesar’s apes and the rest of the world. In fact, one can surmise that there has been little to none. The “Simian flu” from ALZ-113 took its toll without any additional help by the apes after the end of Rise and you might even wonder if the viral effect spread to every ape or if it only stems from those directly linked to the initial ALZ-113 gas that Caesar used to gain his ape clan.
Caesar and his group haven’t even seen humans in two years from their encampment in Muir Woods in California. They have been living peacefully, with Koba (a brutally scarred bonobo) serving as Caesar’s lieutenant and Maurice, the rescued Orangutan, serving as a teacher for many of the other apes. We see writing scrawled on a background. There is an implication that the apes have a community and have evolved, but their tools and methods are still rudimentary. It’s almost depressing to see such intelligent creatures that have human-like capabilities yet still aren’t quite there. Of course, it leaves much to the imagination and whether this is intentional or not as well. Some nurse chimpanzees use these bone masks to either hide their face or actually keep away bacteria from spreading. It’s fascinating to see these glimpses of the way their culture works now and yet still not have a lot of answers. These are the kind of curious world-building steps that make Dawn a film that will likely live beyond a first viewing and also represents a growth of the current film series.
It’s just when you are getting used to the peace that we see our first glimpse of the surviving humans. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is leading an expedition group to find out if a nearby hydroelectric dam is still working and suddenly we have an encounter that doesn’t end well. Koba is immediately suspicious of the humans and wants to simply wipe them off the face of the Earth, but Caesar remains fairly trusting of the humans because of the way he was raised. This breeds tension between the two and sets the film’s primary storyline. Trust is a theme that comes up again and again. Caesar’s own child, Blue Eyes, is even mistrustful of Caesar and while the group seems to want to follow Caesar you can feel the tension as Koba feels like the best interests of the group aren’t being kept in mind.
It’s easy to gloss over the humans in this film yet again, though they are much more varied and improved from the first film. Here it’s mainly because the storyline of Koba and Caesar is so integral to the plot that you hardly need anything more than stock tropes for the humans again. Yet Clarke and a slew of other actors bring a tinge of importance and honesty that is welcome.
But can we get back to the apes? Of course we can. By now many of them walk upright and the opening sequence of them hunting is quite stunning. Why they wear war paint isn’t known or mentioned but it’s a curious thing and definitely has the desired effect of making them that much more menacing. And then there’s the sight of them on horseback, which is quite chilling the way they go about this in a nonchalant manner. When Caesar makes a move to put the humans in their place and rolls up on them en force, it’s incredible to see and the shocked faces of the crowd is wonderful. Look, apes rebelling against the humans and taking over the world is a silly idea. But Matt Reeves and his crew sell this without any sign of a wink. Dawn might be a science fiction film with some silly film history behind it but everything about this film feels grim and real.
As wonderful as Andy Serkis’ performance was in Rise, I think he is trumped here by Tony Kebbell as Koba in Dawn. Witness a moment when Koba explains why he mistrusts humans as he points to scars on his body and you realize how deep things go. It’s heartbreaking to know that while this is a fictional film, his scars are a reflection of reality. Dawn brings even more emotion as we see the way that Caesar’s trust is broken and attempted to be mended by the humans over the course of the film. We learn how hard it is to rebuild trust and why there is a point of no return as well. By the time the humans and the apes go to all out war, every ape that gets hit by a bullet feels like a punch in the heart.
The way the fight takes place is quite interesting and one of those moments that feels like more is done yet less is achieved. Having apes firing fully automatic machine guns while on horseback with nearly perfect aim seems a bit of a stretch, even in a film like this. Yet it’s a spectacular effect. And then you see a sequence where a tank is taken over and we are given a 360 degree whirling point of view of the battle and your mind is temporarily befuddled by just how real everything looks and feels.
A particular standout that has to be mentioned is the sound design. Every time we see a group of Caesar’s apes and they are discussing matters in an intense manner, the surrounding group will often break into hoots and cries. Each time this happened it had the result of taking me out of my seat and putting me squarely in the action and it’s a stunning effect they utilize again and again. We feel the tension in the group and realize just how close they are to breaking loose.
A few critiques might be levied towards the fact that the film starts to shamble a bit near the end. The pacing to this point is pitch perfect but it comes to a grinding halt after a spectacular action set piece. There are also some interesting decisions made on the editing front, like one near a climax as two of our characters battle it out in close-up only to flit away and take an odd, lower right corner focus of the action. There are even some oddities that I don’t seem to be getting any traction with fellow viewers on: a character death from a fall ends up being a mess of crashes and CGI that seem completely unnecessary.
But my reservations aside, I still find myself thinking of all the things that Dawn accomplishes and I’m stunned. Reeves’ typical dark filming style is well suited to such a bleak and miserable future. He’s the type of filmmaker that is able to keep the pedal down and the tone even. Sure, the film feels a little long but the effects and story are so good that they pull you through regardless. Rise was a film that grew as it went along, becoming something more dark and serious. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, there is a relentless push of dark science fiction with expert effects, a wicked story, and a world that you don’t mind thinking about after. Science fiction rarely feels this refreshing.