Thoughtful, ambitious, and character-driven from start to finish, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a worthy sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It continues the story of Caesar, the protagonist ape character so compellingly portrayed by actor Andy Serkis in Rise, and the evolution of the world in the aftermath of the events in that first film without repeating any previous story beats or retreading already-explored territory. Though it builds on its predecessor and it takes the Apes franchise in a somewhat expected direction, it’s an entirely different kind of film than what’s come before in this franchise, and thus it can stand alone on its own merits as a well-crafted character drama, regardless of its sci-fi, post-apocalyptic pedigree and trappings.
That said, its ponderous length and pacing, along with precious few moments of levity to lighten the film’s overall tone, may test the patience of audiences looking for a more fun summer movie experience.
In case you didn’t see Rise or you don’t recall its mid-credits scene, the opening minutes of Dawn bridge the gap in time between the two films. The ALZ-113 virus originally designed as a treatment for brain ailments such as Alzheimer’s Disease by Gen-Sys Corporation results in a pandemic that within ten years time virtually wipes out the world’s human population. During that same time span, the apes given genetically-enhanced intelligence by ALZ-113, led by Caesar (once again portrayed through motion capture by Serkis), have built the beginnings of an organized society within the refuge they found in the Redwoods of what was once Muir Woods. Their community, unmolested by human intrusion and unaffected by the spread of the virus, has grown in size into the thousands and continued to evolve, with their young learning both sign language and rudimentary elements of speech. Now a father as well as a leader, Caesar tries to pass on what wisdom and experience he’s gained to his headstrong teenaged son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), and tries to lead his followers with a balance of patience and reason, which he himself learned from being raised by humans, and strength and ferocity, which he knows the apes recognize and respect.
His leadership faces its first real test when the community’s existence is discovered by humans through contact with a small band of virus survivors living in what is left of San Francisco. The humans, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), need to repair a dam near the apes’ home in order to restore power to their shelters and ensure their own survival, and as most humans view the apes with suspicion and fear anyway (the deadly virus came to be called “simian flu” during the outbreak due to the mistaken belief that it had originated with apes), they’re willing to use force to do it. The distrust and animosity isn’t limited to just the humans, of course; some of the apes, in particular Koba (Toby Kebbell), a former Gen-Sys laboratory subject, remember how humans caged and mistreated them long ago, and relish the opportunity for war and revenge.
But there are peace-seeking people within both camps, as well. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a father and an architect left a widower by the virus, and Ellie (Keri Russell), a former CDC nurse who knows the truth about ALZ-113, want to believe that co-existence is possible, and they along with a small group venture into the forest hoping to earn Caesar’s trust in order to repair the dam and ensure their community’s survival without violence. They, along with Caesar and those closest to him, represent the best chance to forge a peace, but what it will take to overcome the desire for war on both sides is might be more than any one of them can foresee.
Whereas Rise of the Planet of the Apes drew much of emotional power and resonance from pointing out the callous greed and cruelty of human behavior as experienced by the victimized and exploited apes, the script for Dawn, written by franchise newcomer Mark Bomback (The Wolverine), along with Rise screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, is built on parallels between the human and ape communities as well as the individual characters themselves. There is the contrast of one society in its twilight, struggling to simply survive, while the other is still near the beginning of their journey and experiencing growing pains, but for the most part it is the similarities between the two groups in conflict that creates the film’s engrossing drama. Both human and ape groups have leaders trying to preserve all that’s been built and safeguard the future of those in their charge. Both Caesar and Malcolm are fathers who have to find a way across emotional divides between them and their adolescent sons, whose perceptions and beliefs have been shaped by the world as it is and have little or no recollection of the world as it was before the virus outbreak. And both human and ape must come to terms with those among their number who cannot let go of hate and bitterness, and the need to blame others who are different from them for their trials and sorrows. All those layers, all that complexity, speaks to the ambition of the filmmakers to create truly thought-provoking science fiction cinema, and the fact that it all works as well as it does is a testament to the talent in front of the camera.
Once again, Andy Serkis, who has become the go-to presence in the realm of motion capture performance, delivers an incredibly believable and compelling portrayal of the now-adult Caesar. Whereas in Rise the challenge for Serkis was to bring to life Caesar’s growing intellect and self-awareness while still convincingly conveying the body language of an adolescent common chimpanzee, now the actor must convey a maturation of Caesar’s movement and bearing as well as the emotional weight of the burdens the character now carries as the leader of his kind. His work, along with the digital wizardry provided by WETA Digital, who nearly ten years ago built King Kong around Serkis’s motion-capture performance, combine to give audiences an ape protagonist that’s just as powerhouse a screen presence as any human he shares that screen with. Serkis may always be best remembered for his work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films and The Hobbit, but it’s his work here that should stand as his finest to date.
As for the non-digital presences on screen, Jason Clarke, who American audiences might recognize for supporting roles in Zero Dark Thirty, Lawless, and The Great Gatsby, delivers what should be starmaking work as Malcolm, holding his own on-screen with Serkis as well as the always-reliable Keri Russell and Oldman, whose effort here is solid but who perhaps unavoidably looks and sounds a bit too much like his Commissioner Gordon from the The Dark Knight Trilogy to be all that memorable. As the story follows Malcolm through his initial fear of the apes and subsequently his understanding and connection with them, as well as his efforts to be the best father he can be in a world turned upside down, Clarke keeps the character accessible and relatable, not as a larger than life figure, but rather one we all might hope we’d be if faced with similar circumstances. His is a standout performance that should, if nothing else, provide audiences with just a bit more incentive to check out his upcoming turn as John Connor in the latest attempt to revitalize the Terminator franchise, Terminator: Genesis, coming next summer.
But for all the fine work turned in by cast and crew here, it cannot be denied that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes suffers from some slow pacing in the early going as it establishes or re-establishes its characters and their relationships to one another, and sets up all those parallels and emotional intricacies that its drama is built upon. It takes time to set all those wheels in motion, and when compounded by the necessity of subtitles for much of the apes’ dialogue and interaction with one another and slow, labored speech for dialogue with human characters, it adds up to extended running time that might be trying for audiences hoping for less talk and more action. The film’s third act delivers on action as human and ape finally clash, certainly, but getting to that peak of tension is a slow, protracted climb. Again, it speaks to the ambition of the filmmakers who clearly wished to keep their story character-driven and not dumb things down in the least, but all that commitment to drama doesn’t make for a very “fun” movie. It may end up being one of those movies that you hear people walk out saying it was good, but that they’d never watch it again, or that it was just too slow for their tastes.
Be that as it may, the film is worthy of attention, if for no other reason you enjoyed Rise and you want to see where the story goes from there. And as is so often the case with movies these days, the end of the film leaves the door open to future sequels, so you might as well get on board the train now. The story of Caesar and the Planet of the Apes is far from done, and unlike other franchises which have certainly worn out their welcome, this is one where the next chapter should be eagerly anticipated.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Enrique Murciano, Kirk Acevedo. Directed by Matt Reeves.
Running Time: 130 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language.