Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

2014 #121
Matt Reeves | 130 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English & American Sign Language | 12 / PG-13

Dawn of the Planet of the ApesRise of the Planet of the Apes surprised a lot of people by being an intelligent, understated blockbuster — that’s not something Hollywood makes any more, and certainly not when they’re rebooting a recognisable IP. It was born of some writers having a good idea, which just so happened to work when told within the Apes universe. The danger with a sequel, of course, is that it’s designed from the off to be a big tentpole franchise movie. Fear not, dear reader, because Dawn has taken its predecessor’s values to heart, offering another slice of character-driven science-fiction drama with lashings of big-budget action as a side dish.

The film begins ten years on from the end of Rise, with the apes having established a life in the forests near San Francisco — they hunt deer in packs with spears; they have a kind of ‘ape city’; there’s a sort of school of youngsters; leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) has a wife and a couple of kids; etc. Humanity, meanwhile, has fared less well: the virus from the end of the last film has all but wiped them out, and the apes haven’t seen or heard from Man in years. That is until a party of survivors arrive, searching for a hydroelectric dam they intend to fire up. When one of them shoots an ape in fear, the stage is set for all kinds of conflict…

From here, Dawn continues on in various interesting directions. This isn’t the kind of blockbuster that sets out a simple premise then follows it up with half a dozen action sequences, possibly with a twist at the end. No, this is the story of Ape and Man learning to interact and coexist — or, rather, failing to. Political machinations abound — and that’s just in the Ape camp. Indeed, we spend most of our time with the apes, CGI having now evolved to such a point where it can truly create Characters, not just, y’know, Jar Jar Binks.

The Big (Ape) SocietyA heady mix of solid writing from Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, peerless motion-captured performances from the likes of Serkis and Toby Kebbell, and first-rate CG magic from Weta, brings us a set of characters who are compelling and believable. Here is a society trying to define what it wants to be, battling old prejudices in the hope of a peaceful, secure, happy future. If you want to draw analogies to almost any real-world political situation, I’m sure you could.

What’s perhaps most fascinating is that it’s the apes’ future we’re most invested in. It’s not that they’re the Good Guys and humans are the Bad Guys — there are heroes and villains on both sides, just another aspect of the film’s relative maturity — but that we care more about what happens to ape society than human.

In fairness, that’s in part because the human side of the equation is a bit of a damp squib. Jason Clarke is an adequate but blank lead; as his new love and son-from-before, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee have an aimless subplot; Gary Oldman is an excellent ‘villain’, in restrained “trying to do the best for his people” mode rather than the all-out-loon he’s best known for, but is sadly underused. Some people have found this to be a major problem with the film; honestly, I don’t. The apes are the focus and that’s fine. It would work better with even less of humanity, in fact — as I said, the wife-and-son subplot adds nothing, and the screentime could be better spent elsewhere.

Ape assaultLest you get the wrong impression, the film isn’t all talk. For various spoiler-y reasons, the fragile relationship between Man and Ape breaks down, and the apes stage an attack on humanity. Here we get perhaps one of the best siege action sequences I can think of, with mankind holed up in a half-constructed skyscraper that sits conveniently at the end of a long street for the apes to charge down. Reeves’ direction is virtuosic here, crafting an epic and exciting sequence even when most of the film’s major players are busy elsewhere. And it’s not even the climax.

In some respects that’s a bold move — the action is story-led rather than scale-led, meaning the big memorable action sequence is at the end of act two instead of the climax. The downside is that someone seems to have realised this, forcing the film to climax with a punch-out atop a crumbling skyscraper — so far, so superhero blockbuster. I can understand the impulse to make the finale a big action-based number, and at least they didn’t go for some kind of rehash-with-bells-on from what worked earlier in the film, but — unlike that earlier sequence — it doesn’t offer anything terribly fresh. Still, in a film that’s more about its story than the originality of its action beats, perhaps we can let that slide.

Said story has been labelled predictable by some, which is a tad harsh. Of course the apes and humans are going to come into conflict — that’s kind of the point. We all know where this ends up, after all. It’s the journey that’s interesting, and Reeves and co make it so. This is a major turning point in ape-human relations, and therefore in the Apes saga. That makes it a story worth telling, even if the import is undersold occasionally Caesarthanks to some surprisingly small-scale narrative choices (the whole thing with the dam doesn’t feel nearly as vital as it should) and Reeves’ direction sometimes being a little straightforward and almost TV-ish. I know I’ve said I hate when people use that as a derogatory comment nowadays, but some repeated locations and shot choices make the film feel cheaper than it was.

It’s difficult to say whether Dawn is a better movie than Rise (and I’ve seen people argue both sides unequivocally) because they’re actually quite different styles of film. That, surely, is a good thing — as I said before, this is now a franchise driven by the story it wants to tell, rather than a need to repeat old glories or offer a certain quota of adrenaline. Sit me down in front of Rise again and I might change my mind, but, with its intelligent depiction of an ape society, constant tension, and one absolutely first-class battle sequence, I’m tempted to declare Dawn the victor.

5 out of 5

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes placed 4th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

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