Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Matt Reeves
Stars: Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Kodi-Smit McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Jon Eyez, Enrique Murciano, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Judy Greer, Larramie Doc Shaw, Lee Ross.
The original 1968 film Planet Of The Apes was a great piece of sci-fi that also offered a cautionary tale about nuclear proliferation and science out of control, and a world in which the natural order was turned upside down. It was both a critical and commercial success, and spawned a series of sequels and even a tv series. Then in 2001 Tim Burton went and ruined it all with his misguided, unnecessary and disappointing remake that even mucked up the shock ending.
In 2011 director Rupert Wyatt gave the series an intelligent and provocative reboot, with his Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, which saw medical experiments create a race of genetically evolved apes that eventually escaped from the laboratories and went on a rampage, spreading a voracious strain of simian flu that devastated the human population of the planet.
And now we get this sequel that is, arguably, even better. A quick prologue reminds audiences of the effects of the simian flu. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is set some ten years since that simian flu laid waste to the planet. Cities are wastelands, overgrown with weeds and largely deserted. In the hills above San Francisco live a tribe of genetically evolved apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), who has taught them sign language so that they can communicate more effectively. Some of the more intelligent apes, who were injected with wonder drugs, have the capacity to speak in guttural tones and monosyllables.
In San Francisco itself a motley bunch of human survivors eke out a rudimentary existence amidst the ruined city. But when their natural sources of energy are depleted they realise that they need to activate an old dam and power station to generate electricity. While venturing into the hills a small party of engineers come across the intelligent apes led by Caesar. After a tense standoff, a fragile peace is negotiated between the two species. Caesar was raised in a loving and nurturing environment and has faith in the humans and displays trust, intelligence and reason, while Koba (Toby Kebbell) still remembers the way he was treated in the laboratories and is driven by hatred, jealousy, rage and a thirst for revenge. Koba wants a war with the humans and will stop at nothing to bring about such a conflict.
The apes here display the best and worst of human emotions and there are strong parallels between them and the human survivors who, likewise, are vocal in their distrust of the apes. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a loose reworking of themes from 1970’s Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (the only film in the original series not to feature Roddy McDowall), and this is arguably the best film in the whole series. The original series (and even to some extent the television series spinoff) often raised some provocative ideas and themes about the future of mankind, the environment, humanity, and the futility of war. And so it is with this film which deftly mixes family melodrama with provocative sci-fi, political intrigue and stunning action set pieces. However, the final battle inside a towering structure is still a little cliched and overlong.
Writer Mark Bomback (Unstoppable, the remake of Total Recall, etc) certainly knows how to deliver the action, while co-writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, etc) bring emotional heft to the screenplay. The director is Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), who replaced original director Wyatt after he dropped out, and he certainly brings a visceral quality to the action. He also brings a darker sensibility to the material.
Nonetheless, Michael Bay could learn something from Reeves about how to stage a large scale, big budget special effects driven blockbuster with heart and sympathetic characters. I felt more empathy for a pair of giant apes beating the crap out of each other in the climactic smack down here than I did for Bay’s giant robots belting each other around interminably.
Jason Clarke (who has had roles in films like Zero Dark Thirty, Lawless, etc) is solid as Malcolm, who develops a rapport with Caesar that is threatened by a couple of human hotheads who distrust the apes. Gary Oldman reins in his usual over the top eccentric characterisations to play Dreyfus, a former soldier who has become the leader of the enclave of survivors. It’s good to see some Australians involved in this bug budget film, although Kodi Smit-McPhee (who worked with Reeves on Let Me In) is given little of note to do, but he does have a nice presence. Likewise Keri Russell is sympathetic but again given little to do.
Wyatt’s 2011 Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes represented a huge advance in special effects technology, but this sequel takes another quantum leap forward in CGI. The motion capture process used to bring Caesar and the other digitally rendered apes to life is truly fantastic, giving them a life-like appearance. Serkis (surely the king of this process after the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, etc) imbues Caesar with intelligence, emotional depth and a real personality. The sight of apes riding horses and armed with submachine guns is certainly quite spectacular. Reeves handles the chaotic battle scenes with style. The 3D process is used effectively in a couple of scenes, particularly those set in the forest wilderness that is the apes’ home.
This dawn certainly raises expectations for what is surely to follow in the next installment of the series.