Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Posted by Joel Copling on July 10, 2014

Groundbreaking new standard for summer blockbusters--as many seem to be labeling it--"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is not, but let us regard these visual effects as the groundbreaking new standard for the format. For rarely a single shot do the mammals of the title look anything less than entirely photorealistic. This is beyond the Uncanny Valley about which the late Roger Ebert complained--that creepy stage between cartoonishness and seamlessness that gave animated or computer-generated characters a realistic but hollow bouquet--and more akin than ever to the illusion of real characters interacting with live-action people. The movie itself might add up to not much more than a territorial battleground, but these effects are something. They can emulate true emotion (grief at the death of a friend, joy at the sight of new life, etc.), which is an achievement not to be taken lightly.

And as in 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," this film's immediate, solid predecessor, said apes get the more interesting material. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is now the formidable leader of all the apes. It has been "ten winters" since he and makeshift lieutenants Koba (Toby Kebbell) and Maurice (Karin Konoval) have seen humans, whom Caesar trusts more than Koba, as the former was brought up by a particularly good one played in the earlier film by James Franco. Caesar now has a wife (Judy Greer), who is severely ill, and son (Nick Thurston), who feels he can only trust his father to a certain point when, later, bad goes to worse. All of this is highly effective, and there's a simple poetry to the apes' dialogue, whether Signed (with accompanying subtitles) or spoken in guttural grunts. This is like so many primitive civilizations, and the blunt lines between honor and dishonor are sometimes rather chilling.

But the humans are here and straddled with the less effective elements of the movie. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) are leaders of what seems to be the one of the last cities on Earth, inhabited with people genetically immune to the disease that, at the close of the previous film, spread across the entire globe. A former CDC doctor named Ellie (Keri Russell), whose daughter was among the infected, has become close to Malcolm and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Otherwise, these humans are means to an end; nothing is ever really developed about them, and though the performances are solid, especially from Clarke, the apes are the rightful focus of the drama.

The catalyst for said drama is the humans' attempt to restart a hydroelectric dam that will restore power to their city. The apes thwart this attempt, so a desperate Malcolm and a few others approach Caesar, who lets them do their work. Koba doesn't like this idea, having been tortured and experimented on in the Gen-Sys labs previously. The aforementioned "territorial battleground" element inevitably comes into play, leading to some pretty horrifying sequences (One ape acts dumb for a couple guards with automatic weapons, and--well--while a tracking shot follows an ape who has carjacked a tank), but it only half-works, since the human element is underplayed. What does work about "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"--and works really well--is the inherently Shakespearean tragedy at play in a more primitive civilization torn asunder.

Film Information

Andy Serkis (Caesar), Jason Clarke (Malcolm), Gary Oldman (Dreyfus), Keri Russell (Ellie), Toby Kebbell (Koba), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Alexander), Kirk Acevedo (Carver), Nick Thurston (Blue Eyes), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Judy Greer (Cornelia), Jon Eyez (Foster), Enrique Murciano (Foster), Doc Shaw (Ash).

Directed by Matt Reeves and written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback, based on the novel "La planete des singes" by Pierre Boulle.

Rated PG-13 (intense sci-fi violence/action, brief language).

130 minutes.

Released on July 11, 2014.