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'Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes' Review: Everything That Great Science Fiction Should Be

By TK | Film Reviews | July 11, 2014 | Comments ()


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2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, cumbersome title aside, achieved a remarkable thing — it breathed life into a motion-capture animated, computer-generated ape named Caesar. Through a combination of sharp, inspired directing, very good writing, and a solid cast of actors, Rise felt like a movie that, while inspired by the original series, was a world of its own. It was a resounding success and spawned a sequel that comes out today, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

I’m pleased to be able to say that while Rise was a remarkable achievement, Dawn is nothing less than amazing. It’s amazing for all the right reasons, and a resounding success in every way that a big, gorgeous science fiction movie should be successful. Picking up ten years after what has since been dubbed the “Simian Flu” wiped out almost all of humankind, it returns to the woods outside San Francisco, where Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his ape brethren are thriving. They’re building homes, they’ve all learned sign language, they’re developing skills like reading and writing. They’ve mastered fire and hunting and horseback riding. They’ve had families. It is idyllic, though imperfect — Caesar’s son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), rebels against his father at every opportunity, and his friend and advisor Koba (Toby Kebbell), stills seethes at the memory of the horrific treatment he endured in the human labs a decade ago.

As for the humans, they remain hidden and desperate, with dwindling supplies and increasing needs. A pocket of them remains in San Francisco, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a dogged and single-minded man determined not to let humans slip back into the stone age. With him is Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell), a pair who are tasked with exploring the forest to see if they can get the nearby hydroelectric dam working and bring limited power back to the city. In their efforts to do so, they come into contact with Caesar and his now-huge colony of apes, and a near-fatal misunderstanding causes a rift to quickly grow between the two groups, each wary and terrified of the other, each mistrustful and protective.

It’s not hard to see the allegories being laid out here — the themes of what humanity means, of power and family and evolution, of what makes a society and the value of peace and prosperity at the cost of aggression and paranoia — are all threaded throughout the film. Yet Dawn is so satisfying because it refuses to beat you over the head with these themes, and more importantly, it refuses to give you an easy antagonist. Each character is richly drawn and deeply motivated by mostly unselfish needs — the humans want their world back, the apes just want to be left alone. Caesar harbors some lingering resentment, but also remembers the kindnesses shown to him by humans. Koba is bitter and angry, but also a loving friend of Caesar whose love slowly becomes corrupted by his own rage. Malcolm simply wants peace, but he also understands the need to protect his family. All of them are well-realized, and what makes it all the more impressive is how much you will find yourself empathizing with the half of the cast who are not only computer generated, but rarely speak.

It’s there that the special effects of Dawn become the film’s star, because the sheer expressiveness of the apes’ faces is absolutely stunning. When they’re elated, you feel joy and when they despair, it feels like a kick to the stomach. Their loves and hates and anger and happiness feel just as real and true as that of the humans, and their movements feel real. It’s an advantage of motion capture versus straight-up CGI, I suppose — you are, in essence, seeing the actors, just with a digital mask, one that captures their every movement and emotion. When mixed in with some stellar set design and locations, it all creates an absolutely gorgeous film.

Yet the heart of the film is its writing, and that’s where it shines brightest. Penned by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, it’s a sprawling, beautiful picture, but it also resonates deeply. The themes are complex, far more than we’ve come to expect from a summer tentpole, and the actors each fiercely shoulder the script and dialogue in such a way that you will instantly empathize. But the script is the glue, and it takes no easy ways out. It doesn’t flinch to show you the darkness in their hearts, the traitors in each midst, the ones who are led astray. The apes are not all beatific innocents, and the humans are most certainly not cruel or unjust.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of the film’s intelligence is that for a two-plus hour science fiction film, there is literally no action for the first two-thirds. Instead, the writers and director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) focus on the growing relationships between the families of Caesar and Malcolm, while also showing the uncertainties and resentments of their respective allies. And when those relationships blossom, the film is at its best — the relationship and rapport between the two male leads is remarkably complex, and when it slowly, warily evolves into friendship, it’s terrific. Yet it’s also all so tragic, because one of the harshest truths of the film is we know how it will end before it even starts, and that sense of dread is compounded by how emotionally affecting it is.

Dawn does eventually showcase a big, action-packed finale and it’s there that the film is actually at its weakest. It’s still an impressive showing, and it’s not that it’s poorly done — the directing is fantastic and the viewer has a clear vision of the space and placement of the scene’s parts, despite the abject chaos on screen. But it also falls victim to some silly tropes — a mano-a-mano fight atop a massive, collapsing structure, a somewhat over-the-top gun battle — that felt like a slight betrayal to what made the first two acts so great. But it’s handled deftly enough to be forgivable, and the ending is so satisfying (albeit rather bleak) that it’s worth that minor hiccup.

It was hard to watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes without thinking of the last sci-fi film that I reviewed, the atrocious Transformers: Age Of Extinction. The similarities are obvious — both feature CGI characters who play integral roles in the film. In fact, both feature a contemplation on the nature of humanity and the soul, although in Transformers, that discussion is brief, lazy, and dumb. Yet Dawn is everything that film is not — intelligent, well-realized, and interesting, with a clear vision of what it wants to show us: that which makes us human does not make us special, that the world is more than what we’ve made it to be. That having a heart and a mind does not make one immune from pettiness and anger, and that a lack of understanding can destroy everything. It also proves that you can breathe life — honest-to-goodness life — into your digital creations if you take the time to think about what’s inside, to think beyond special effects simply there for effect, but rather there as a critical component of the story. It’s exactly what science fiction should be — a breathtaking, thought-provoking, thrilling, complex journey, building upon and eventually surpassing its predecessor to become one of the most impressive movies of this summer.

You can email TK here, or follow him on Twitter at @TKhatesyou.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • LexieW

    Could not agree with you more - it's easily my favorite film of the year so far. Absolutely incredible, and I even re-watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes the night before to prepare myself... nothing could have prepared me for the frickin' master class that is this film.

  • cruzzercruz

    That tank shot just blew me away. I turned to my buddy after the film and said, "They Alfonso Cuaron'd the shit out of that tank scene."

  • Dennis Albert Ramirez

    just watched it. it was wonderful. a truly terrific science-fiction blockbuster they way they should always be done. i think the big action sequence was well-earned, given all the slow character-building that actually gave it some weight. i completely bought into the CGI ape civilization as actual, breathing, complicated beings. the end is a bit muddled as far as what seemed like multiple climaxes, but man, i'll take it. very thoughtful and unexpectedly heavy for a blockbuster about apes on horses with machine guns.

    also, the sequence from the tank POV was phenomenally orchestrated. bravo to the DP and everyone involved

  • Andrew J

    I loved the first one and thought this one ruined all the good that one had. All the characters became one dimensions bores (Koba wasn't evil in the last one to make a point about appearance but here he's pretty much cartoon) the humans were dumb and each scene just jumped from one to the other.

    I really wanted to like this but the movie kept convincing me otherwise

  • Mythra Sun

    Seeing it on my birthday on Monday! Its a present to myself. I loved the first one (James Franco and his terrible acting notwithstanding) and that sexy Australian with the serial killer eyes, Jason Clarke is in it (lions are already moistening) :)

  • MDH

    caught the 1pm showing at my local theater. People who didn't think the first (Rise) was enjoyable probably won't like this one. For those, like me, who thought Rise was an amazingly well-done reboot of what was essentially a franchise consisting of one epic original followed by increasingly campy sequels, Dawn should be right up your alley. The way that Serkis and his tech support have managed to turn Caesar into such a "real" character is indescribable.
    i had read some reviewer liken this to "Empire Strikes Back," and now i better understand the connection. Hopefully, there are no Ewok-equivalent mistakes in the third one and they have the guts to conclude the trilogy with the same intensity and drama of the first two.
    p.s. - i really appreciated how there were no human carry overs from the first movie. They get that Caesar is the protagonist, and this is his story. My guess is the same will be true of the third as well.

  • Pajiba_Pragmatist

    Saw this in an early showing and one thing stuck with me - the female apes are really non-existent; and I'm not going on a Jezebel rant here. As TK noted, the apes are so well done, they are fully realized individuals. Therefore the total lack of ANY female apes is really noticeable. In fact the one female ape with any story has essentially no lines, and spends her time staring at her husband like he was a god.
    Other than that, I think TK's review is spot on.

    Oh, and if you take younger kids to the movie, the initial big battle at the 2/3 mark is far darker and disturbing than most - primarily for the very reason TK lays out, the apes are fully realized people, and their deaths and violence are keenly felt.

  • Zeus McGuinnes

    When will apes learn to stop using gender constructs - its 2014 people.

  • Andrew J

    Wasn't Maurice a girl?

  • PDamian

    Reviews like this are why TK was my Pajiba 10 site-crush.

    I'm seeing this tonight. Between this and all the fantastic reviews on other sites, I'm really looking forward to this.

  • stella

    Im seeing it tomorrow! Im so excited!

  • Kala

    Holy cow. I was happily surprised by your Boyhood review, but this one has me gobsmacked. Seriously, this review counters nearly every single one of my assumptions about this film.

    I love me some excellent sci-fi, but I'm loathe to go to the movie theaters these days. Decisions, decisions.

  • LexieW

    Go. See this one. Make your hard-earned $ say "we want quality, SMART entertainment!"

  • RigbyReardon

    I genuinely thought that the headline was a joke, because the trailers I've seen for this movie are truly and thoroughly awful. Like, people laughing at them in the theater awful. Good to know that the movie isn't as shit as the trailers.

  • Valhallaback Girl

    What does it take to get Andy Serkis a motherfucking Oscar?! Seriously, he's a goddamn renaissance man. He singlehandedly has stolen the screen more as King Kong, Cesar, Gollum etc etc than some of the award winning actors/actresses he's worked with. Give him something, goddammit!

    I have some very strong opinions today.

  • Ryan Ambrose

    I can envision him accepting an honorary Oscar for his contributions to the field of motion capture performance but I'm sure he would just dedicate his win to the hundreds of VFX artists who made it possible.

    Because Andy Serkis is a class act.

  • Dennis Albert Ramirez

    yeah there needs to be some kind of collaborative performance category for this kind of stuff, so you can honor his acting and the artists who translate it to a completely foreign anatomy.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Don't forget the dozens of technicians who also help bring Serkis's performances to life.

  • Valhallaback Girl

    One of my closest friends worked at ILM and Henson Studios for years and now is Phil Tippett's right hand man. I'm constantly surprised how overlooked these artists get when it comes to awards.

    TL;DR you're right. Fucking hell they're talented. Takes a village...

  • kilmo

    Saw this is S. Korea yesterday, so all the ape sign language was in Hangul (Korean), but I still understood the nuances and the emotions the apes were dealing with.

    It was a solid movie. Although, I do feel like now I'm judging everything against Transformers 4 which put me in a rage for several days.

  • $113152758

    Great review TK!

    *Before this review I didn't even realize it was out this weekend. Great marketing job FOX!

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