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.