Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Posted: July 27, 2014 in Film reviews
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Directed by Matt Reeves. Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman.

Its ten years after an apocalypse caused by the Simian Flu, a manmade virus that was designed to fight Alzheimer’s but which actually boosted the intelligence of apes, whilst proving fatal to large numbers of human beings.

Since he led his fellow apes into the forest Caesar (Serkis) has built a peaceful society based upon the axiom that Ape shall not kill Ape. He has a son, and his mate is about to give birth to another child. It has been several years since any of the apes have seen a human being, and they wonder if there are any humans left.

The peaceful life they have built for themselves is shattered when a group of humans from a colony in San Francisco arrive, led by a man named Malcom (Clarke). After an initial misunderstanding where one of the apes is injured, Malcom explains that they are trying to use the nearby hydroelectric dam to power their colony, which is down to its last few weeks of fuel. Initially Caesar refuses to help, and orders the humans out of the forest. Egged on by Koba, his lieutenant, and an ape who still bears the scars of his own captivity by man, Caesar leads his apes to the walled in colony within the city to make it clear that they are quite capable of defending themselves if needs be.

Desperate for the power the dam can provide the colony leader Dreyfuss (Oldman) plans to lead an armed offensive against the apes, but Malcom convinces him to give him another chance to convince Caesar. Along with his wife, Ellie (Russell), his teenage son and a handful of others, Malcom heads back into the forest, but with distrust on both sides can there ever be peace between man and ape?

2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a really pleasant surprise, successfully washing away the foul taste left by Tim Burton’s truly atrocious reboot. As a result I was eagerly anticipating Dawn and I’m happy to report that I was not disappointed. Be warned, it’s a slow burning film, and it does take a little while to get going, but once it does it barely slows down until the end, and is that rarest of beasts, a blockbuster that actually has something intelligent to say.

As he did in Rise, and as he’s done as Gollum and as other CG characters, once again Serkis is the star of the show. The special effects are truly magnificent, to the point where it’s impossible not to believe that Caesar and the other apes are real, but special effects alone would be nothing without the performances backing them up, notably from Serkis, who imbues Caesar with a huge amount of intelligence, honour and, apologies, humanity. With every movement, every twitch of his lips or lift of his brow, Caesar is utterly real, and totally empathetic. Close behind him is Toby Kebbell as Koba, who is far more than a moustache twirling villain, he’s a fully realised character, and his hatred of humans makes perfect sense given his background.

The apes are amazing, especially when roused into action, and the ape army descending on San Francisco is stunning, as is the battle between man and ape when it arrives, and not only do you fully believe that Koba is real, but you don’t doubt that he’s really riding a horse and really welding an automatic rifle.

Dawn is about far more than action sequences though, dealing with fatherhood through the eyes of both Malcom and Caesar, and in dealing with the nuances of diplomacy between two opposing forces whose natural instincts are to distrust one another, and there’s an abiding sense of doom hanging over the film, because even when things seem to be going well you can’t help but feel that sooner or later things are going to take a turn for the worse.

Sadly the human characters are not nearly as well realised as the Apes and this is where the film falls short. Clarke is not an actor I’ve seen before, but he does a good job as the everyman Malcom, struggling to balance his need to survive against his humanity where it comes to the apes. As his wife, Russell is also good, although she perhaps isn’t given nearly enough to do. The rest of the humans are fairly thinly realised and, despite a valiant attempt to make him come alive, it’s a shame that an actor of Oldman’s statue doesn’t get more to do, and in the end he’s wasted as Dreyfuss.

Any such failings are more than made up for by the Apes themselves, and arguably Caesar and Koba are more fully realised characters than you’d likely find in a slew of Michael Bay films.

Thoughtful, intelligent, visually impressive and emotional, this might not be the most in-your-face blockbuster of the year, but it’s far and away one of the best. Ape will not kill ape, and you must not miss this film!

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