When Rise of the Planet of the Apes was released, one of the dominant feelings that seemed to permeate everyone’s mind was amazement. The original franchise had long since passed its expiry date with its old ideas; old visual effects; outdated costumes, and was certainly surpassed by newer, more innovative sci-fi films. Nothing could have prepared cinema goers for the disaster that was Tim Burton’s reboot of the franchise that was not only a narrative mess but an incredibly forgettable foray. Reboots are not something I personally hold my breath for and it seems like Hollywood is willing to try anything these days, but for once the planets thankfully aligned and something different happened with Rise. Was it the director? The writers? The cast? Or simply the spirit to do justice to a franchise that still had bales of relevance tucked away deep behind its ideas of interspecies conflict? All these things at once I believe and like so many others, Rise caught me completely off-guard and stunned me with how much more this franchise has to offer.
And this was just the beginning…
Expectations ran high and walking into Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I hoped the new director Matt Reeves had made a solid and respectful follow-up, one that expanded on Rise in interesting ways. Dawn surpassed all these expectations because the film that came up on the screen was a challenging one: its ideas and nuances are real; absorbing and captivating. Its spectacular sense of character and mood make this entry in the franchise one of the most expertly realised films of the year and certainly one of the most exciting.
10 years since the outbreak of the Simian flu, Earth has succumbed to conflict and disease and seemingly reverted into a stone age where the genetically evolved Apes, led by Caesar have become dominant in their social structure and balance with nature. The apes stumble upon a group of humans, not having seen any for years, and find that new measures need to be taken to ensure a peaceful coexistence with a species that seems intent on resurrecting an old way of living.
Be advised that this is NOT just a film for fans of the Apes franchise. Yes, it’s an action-packed thrilling science fiction but it’s also so much more. This is transcendent cinema that does what good stories do best: entertain and make the mind work. If you think this is just another reboot, then you have even more reasons to see this outstanding big-budget film (something I, myself, usually avoid). This is the Hollywood machine getting it right and putting its money where its mouth is.
The Bottom Line
Dawn is a mainstream blockbuster that is not only smart, but also maintains a white-knuckle tension throughout without sacrificing a very human and emotional perspective. It’s a film that not only comments on who we are, but dares to ask questions about who we can be and whether or not we deserve our custody of this planet. The excellent screenplay, and its philosophical currents, runs completely contrary to Pierre Boulle’s source material as a story of good versus bad species. It’s a harsh but auspicious echo of contemporary societies buckling under the pressure of conflicts between moderate and extremist elements. It also reverberates how the same classes of people in opposing nations can have far more in common than do different classes within the same nation.
The performances in the film are absolutely outstanding, even taking into consideration that a large amount of them are taken up by non-human characters. Andy Serkis as the leading ape, Caesar, gives one of the most articulate and deeply felt performances of any such character I have seen: he is a wise leader, both compassionate but old before his time. The camera stays close to his his eyes which are appropriately expressive and Serkis conveys a weariness apt to the suffering his character has witnessed. Equally riveting is his adversary Koba whose inner turmoil is as effortlessly expressed as Caesar’s and is a character with much method to his darkened madness.
When you see how the film concludes, look back at the trailers. The film was initially planned as a far more grandiose, action orientated piece but instead, Reeves brought everything back to a much more personal place. Never has the Apes franchise been treated with such grace without sacrificing exactly what makes these films so much fun to watch. The director has set the table for a very different series of films than we’ve seen from other entries in this franchise. I’m not only impressed, but deeply moved, and this is a movie I not only need to see again immediately, but that I know is going to be a major part of science-fiction fandom permanently. Heart-breaking and harrowing, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is as good as big-budget science-fiction gets, technically dazzling and emotionally demanding.