Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) / Sci Fi-Action

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language
Running Time: 130 min.

Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Mark Bomback

Review published July 12, 2014

There are occasionally those movies where I grow a bit anxious when sitting to review, primarily because I realize that my enjoyment of them might come across as overpraise, where if I just knocked it down a half a star, I'd be able to state what I like about it with a positive review and leave my opinion less open to counter-criticism.  Avatar is one of those films (though it did get a nomination for Best Picture), Mission: Impossible III is another (though J.J. Abrams would go on to become a highly touted action director), and the remake of RoboCop earlier this year (which, coincidentally, also featured a nuanced small role for Gary Oldman), while admitting it can't hold a candle to the Verhoeven original, is one of those films I will stick my critical neck out to rave about.    

You can add Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to the list of films in which I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend very highly, not really knowing how the public will ultimately take it.  Outside of the original 1968 debut of Planet of the Apes, I think that this is the best of the Apes movies, besting its surprisingly good predecessor in this iteration, and not by a slim margin.  Quite simply, it exceeds every expectation, and manages to do so with intelligence, pathos, and thematic resonance you don't expect from a summer blockbuster, especially a sequel with a different director taking over.

This sequel in the prequel series begins, after an intro sequence that deftly gets us up to speed, about a decade after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  The "Simian Flu" has decimated humans to the point where they barely exist anymore, while the super-intelligent apes, who've taken up residence in the redwood forest area not far from San Francisco, have been flourishing, but mostly hoping to live in peace with each other.  It has been a long time since any of them have seen a human, and just when they think they've seen the last of their former captors, they come across a small party of armed humans looking to repair the hydroelectric dam that supplies energy to the nearby urban areas.  These humans get panicked and attack the apes.

Though the apes vastly outnumber the human party, Caesar (Serkis, The Hobbit) determines the best course of action is to let the humans go, and follows them back to their encampment to deliver a message to the humans that war is not what they're seeking -- each tribe should stick to their own territory (humans in the city, apes in the forest).  However, the humans really need to get into the ape territory to get the dam up and running or they may perish, so retreat isn't much of an option. And not all of the ape thinks humans should be allowed to prosper, risking an all-out war, man vs. ape, despite the respective leaders' desire for a peaceful coexistence.

Dawn is directed by Matt Reeves, who crafted almost the antithesis of this production, Cloverfield, which showed as few effects shots as possible with a small budget to play with.  He truly does deliver here, and not just in the action department: there is pathos, emotion, story development, and a plotline full of power-grabs and betrayals that would make Shakespeare proud.  What he does, more so than many others who've helmed a big action franchise in recent years, is to know when to slow down the pace of the film, to allow us those necessary character moments that make us care what happens when the plot tilts to bursts of violence. FOX is so impressed by Reeves' effort that they've signed Reeves up for the third installment.

Andy Serkis continues to prove he is the best in the performance capture business, this time also lending his voice to the chimpanzee leader of the apes, Caesar.  This is a big special effects-driven movie, and while not completely convincing in shedding the cartoonish elements of the CGI apes, the level of detail, movement, and subtle facial expressions still greatly impress nonetheless.  No matter what emotional element is called for in any scene or bit of conversation, whether anger or fear, we can readily see it in the eyes of the apes, which is quite phenomenal considering there isn't a great deal of dialogue in the film comparatively.  I might even go so far as to state the CGI apes deliver better performances than their live-action counterparts on the human side. 

In this film, the apes do speak, mostly in a sophisticated version of sign language they learned in the lab that they've passed on to their progeny, but we also hear the beginnings of their comfort in using oral language as well.  The film alternates between the physical and the verbal as needed, and it even gives the apes the edge, as they can understand human speak, but the humans can't discern when their counterparts are plotting something more before their eyes, continuing the prejudice that the apes are the less intelligent species.

Meanwhile, humans are mostly there to serve a purpose for the overall plot, though there are enough character touches to make them more than just cardboard characterizations.  The bulk of the live-action acting is done by Jason Clarke (White House Down, Zero Dark Thirty), a solid character actor whose more low-key style ensures that he doesn't take the concentration away from what's really important to focus on.  Keri Russell (Dark Skies, Austenland), as the girlfriend, and Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight Rises, The Book of Eli), as the de facto leader of the human clan, color in their lesser roles, with the latter particularly strong in a couple of key scenes that give gravitas to what the humans lost when civilization crumbled. 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a violent film, and there are a few acts in the movie along these lines that aren't exactly easy to watch, but it isn't violent for violence's sake.  Each act of aggression not only heightens the tension in the story, but it actually serves a dual purpose that demonstrates that the path to war is costly and possibly never-ending; violence begets violence, and once you go down that road, it's almost impossible to stop.  Even though it is fine to view just as a piece of great summer entertainment, the underlying message that patience, tolerance, understanding, forgiveness, and trust are virtues one should pursue over vengeance and retribution, is one that is fully explored and demonstrative of just why great leadership requires an even-tempered hand.

I'm going to digress for a few paragraphs now for a bit of a rant. 

I have read way too many comments in movie forums from people dissing this movie for being predictable.  If that is you, you don't even deserve a pat on the back for your amazing movie-guessing prowess.  The inherently critical aspect of a film like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and that of nearly any prequel, is that we know where it will eventually lead (the title gives it away even to those who didn't see the original), so even when there is respite and hope of humans and apes coexisting in harmony, things are going to take a turn for the worse.  All we can do when things go well is wait for the other shoe to drop, and in the ape named Koba (Kebbell, The Counselor), who absolutely abhors humans due to years of physical abuse at their hands, we can only wait for him to cross the line.  Like the Professor X/Magneto dynamic (aka the Martin Luther King/Malcolm X dynamic), the tension between leaders who think living in coexistence is the ideal to strive for vs. knowing that the only way to be free is to fight back on those who seek to oppress is where much of the narrative friction resides.

However, I must argue against detractors who disregard this film solely because of its predictability.  It is a tragedy, told in a classical style.  We know where Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" will lead, but that only makes every hope that gets extinguished all the more heartbreaking.  Same thing with "Othello", "Hamlet" -- or older, "Oedipus Rex", "Medea".  Yes, this is a movie we already know where it is going to go because we've already seen what the world is like hundreds of years into the future.  What you're missing is the point of the entire film, and of why tragedies exist as a form of storytelling altogether.  You are SUPPOSED to know where things are headed, and with that knowledge, you're supposed to reflect on all of the ways that tragedy could have been averted, but through human (or ape) arrogance, hubris, thirst for vengeance, and idiotic folly, these ways are all undone.  Knowing the outcome of a tragic tale is a means to break your heart and teach you something about the human condition.  Stories are not merely guessing games, and the worth of a story isn't not just being able to predict what happens at the end.  And that is especially true in watching a prequel to an all-time classic science fiction staple approaching its 50th anniversary.

However, what's not predictable about it is the plot itself.  If you knew, after watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes, that its sequel would be about the need to start up a hydroelectric dam, or that Caesar would be the pro-human proponent, going against ape-kind, or many other interesting touches that add another level of interest beyond just knowing that we're heading toward a future in which apes are the oppressors, only then would I consider your arguments of predictability founded.  EVERYONE knows where things are going at the end of the saga; it's the poignancy in how it gets there that makes it all worthwhile and relevant.  If there's no room for a classically plotted tragedy in today's movie narrative, then all hope for a return to great cinema is lost.  Do we really only need films to be nearly plot-less meta commentaries, full of snarky, ad-libbed dialogue and envelope-pushing raunch ad nauseam?

And I won't even bother with those people who absurdly detract from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes because it reminds them of Avatar, when we all know darn well that Avatar itself is borrowing ideas from at least a half-dozen other films, which in turn are reminiscent of even more.  There are a over a million movies, TV shows, books, comics, video games, etc. in existence. Every new thing is reminiscent of some older thing, which is like an even older thing.  Unless it is deliberately cribbing, I think we're going to have to let basic story similarities go, for the sake of simply enjoying a story told well.

Rant complete.

I do believe that fans of Rise of the Planet of the Apes will be equally on board for this superb sequel, and should also, once the credits roll on this one, be eagerly anticipating the next installment, which promises to up the stakes even higher in terms of bringing us along in this story about the rise of a major civilization on Earth.  While there may be a familiarity in its story (it is the eighth time we've gone back to this universe on the big screen, after all), this is epic storytelling, taking elements known to work and making them the blueprint to follow, rather than just coming unhinged by trying to blow away everything else in theaters through explosiveness and destruction.  Though dumb action movies may seemingly always be with us, there's still a part of me that hopes that films like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will be the "Dawn of the Return to Intelligent Summer Blockbusters." for the next generation of populist film fans.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo