With Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell. Written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver & Mark Bomback. Directed by Matt Reeves. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language. 130 minutes.
Having watched “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” (2011) twice, this reviewer makes no apologies for finding it an incoherent mess. It was a minority opinion to be sure, but a second viewing was unpersuasive in uncovering the film’s supposed positive values. Thus going into DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (a title that is arguably a synonym for the first one), there was not a lot of eager anticipation.
It’s a pleasure, therefore, to report that “Dawn” has a much more focused script, that its special effects are as impressive as any seen in this summer’s blockbusters, and for those looking for a bit of substance, the film actually has a dark message about humanity and war. While several of the summer’s films (“Godzilla,” “X-Men: Days Of Future Past,” “Edge Of Tomorrow,” “Transformers: Age Of Extinction”) have had plenty of battles and destruction, this is the one that leaves us with something other than a conventional happy ending.
Ten years after the events of “Rise,” most of humanity is dead, wiped out by the “simian flu,” a disease caused not by the apes but by the scientists and their experiments in the first film. Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads his tribe (of apes, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans) in the forests beyond San Francisco, wondering if there are any humans left. It’s no surprise to us–but it is to the apes–when they learn there is an enclave of survivors in the big city.
The peaceful Malcolm (Jason Clarke) convinces Caesar to let the humans attempt to get a power generating dam back into operation. However, some of the humans hate the apes as mere “animals” or blame them for the plague, while Koba (Tony Kebbell) has never forgotten the suffering he enduring as an experimental animal. As much as Malcolm and Caesar attempt to slowly and carefully forge a bond of trust, there are others all too eager to undercut them.
In that sense, the movie is a parable about war and about the extremists and hotheads who can do tremendous damage in spite of the positive actions of others. What good is it that Malcolm’s wife Ellie (Keri Russell) is a doctor who can treat Caesar’s ailing wife when Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is ready to arm the humans and totally wipe out the ape population? Essentially the film is incident after incident where it looks like peace and rational behavior will prevail, and then someone does something stupid or hateful or violent. It’s one step forward, three steps back.
The CGI work is astounding, from the rubble of San Francisco, to the ape army on the attack. Where the work is especially impressive is in making us believe that the apes are thinking and reacting. Done largely with “motion capture” technology where actors like Serkis and Kebbell perform the scene and then their ape characters are digitally built around them, it represents special effects at their best. The effects don’t call attention to themselves as effects but instead are there simply to tell the story and serve the movie.
There are no shirkers among the actors in the human roles, but special mention must be made of Jason Clarke. The Australian actor has been quietly amassing credits in film and on television, sometimes in a leading role but never center stage in a movie like this. His turn here ought to bring him one step closer to being on the A list.
No doubt the series will continue, and if they maintain the level of “Dawn” it will be worth it. Please, though, think up a better title? Calling film number three “Beginning Of The Planet Of The Apes” would just be silly.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.