One of the biggest surprises in film recently for me was Rise of the Planet of the Apes. After watching the trailers for it I thought it would be a pretty bad film but instead I was greeted by a really smart, engaging summer blockbuster with a brilliant central performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar. When the sequel was announced I was excited, but the excitement waned a bit when it was announced Rupert Wyatt wouldn’t direct the sequel as his strong direction is one of the things that helped Rise work as well as it did. I needn’t have worried however as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is easily better than Rise and one of the best summer blockbusters in a year of great summer blockbusters.
The plot concerns the civilization of the apes, headed by Caesar, living in peace 10 years after the events of the first film. During this time, the virus created in the first film has spread around the planet, killing virtually the entire population of the planet, with violent outbreaks killing another large portion. 2 years after the apes last saw a human, a group of humans who are genetically immune to the virus accidentally find the ape civilization whilst trying to find a HEP damn to restore limited power to San Francisco. After the apes warn the humans away, a small group headed by one of the leaders of the survivors, Malcolm, goes to the ape colony to arrange a deal for the humans to access the dam. However, neither side fully trusts each other and both sides start preparing for attack. What I love about the film is that there isn’t really a villain, you get to see the situations in both the ape and human colonies so that you fully understand what life is like. The mutual distrust that both sides have for each other feels really believable and as such, when both sides start preparing for attack, you fully understand why. I also really like how the film uses sign language and speech with the apes. At the start of the film, the apes mostly use sign language and as the film goes on, the apes start to speak more often. Since they use sign language when they are peaceful and speech in the fighting, this is a pretty solid indicator of the violence that the apes can do and that the apes aren’t too dissimilar to humans when it comes to violence. This sense that there are similarities between the apes and the humans also extends to the positive aspects, with there being families on both sides who want to live peacefully, Caesar and his family on the apes side and Malcolm and his family on the human side which helps bring further emotional attachment to the characters. If there is a complaint to be made about the story it’s that the female characters didn’t add much to the film, with Kelly only having one key moment and Caesar’s mate not even getting named and seems to only be there as a plot device but when I was watching the film I was so caught up in the story that I didn’t notice.
On a performance level the standout is clearly Andy Serkis as Caesar. At the start of the film Serkis clearly shows the determination of his character to ensure a strong community for the apes, along with a deep love for his family and his desire to keep them safe. As the film goes on, he clearly shows why Caesar both trusts and distrusts humans with the anger he feels when humans have guns being key for the character. He also shows this great strength that lets you know why the other apes support him to the extent that they do and as the film goes on and the violence keeps escalating he shows the pain and regret that Caesar feels over everything happening. The other standout is Toby Kebbel as Koba. Due to it being shown in the first film that Koba was heavily mistreated by humans in his experience as a lab ape, we fully understand why Koba doesn’t trust humans. Kebbel brings this quality of Koba across brilliantly and he also shows the power that Koba, along with his manipulative qualities that let you know how he is able to get so many apes to trust him. He also shows how his experience with humans has enabled him to gain an understanding of them, which enables him to better plan around the humans. To explain more about why Kebbel is so good would require me to spoil the film so I won’t go into any more detail. On the human side, Jason Clarke is great as Malcolm, brilliantly showing his clear desire for peace and the concerns he has as a parent that his family could be killed, which lets you know why he is so desperate for peace. Gary Oldman meanwhile brings a great deal of depth to Dreyfuss. The character could come across as one note but Oldman shows the fear that the character has over what will happen if they don’t get access to the dam and the humans run out of fuel. He also gets one of the most powerful emotional moments in the film. Great performances are also given by Kodi Smit-McPhee and Keri Russell as Malcolm’s family in small roles and as Maurice is one of my favourite characters in the film with her bringing across this really powerful presence to the character that lets you know that you shouldn’t cross Maurice.
On a technical level the film excels. The CGI and motion capture for the apes is incredible, with the film fixing one of the key issues that has always plagued motion capture, that being the eye and how hard it is to fully capture facial emotion due to how difficult it is to animate the eye. I also really like how, since the motion capture was done mostly on set, the lighting goes around the characters is a highly believable way which fully immerse you into believing that the apes are real. The action scenes are also really well directed by Reeves, with a clear sense of geography and having the actions of the characters in these scenes make sense and actually adds to the overall strength of the characters in the film. Plus, there are some sights in the action scenes which are just awesome, the main one being Koba duel wielding machine guns whilst riding a horse.
Overall, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a brilliant summer blockbuster. Even amidst all the action scenes, the film understands that if you don’t care about the characters you aren’t invested in the film and really takes its time in creating a believable world where all the decisions that the characters make feel logical. If the Planet of the Apes series continues along the lines of this film, then expect to see more brilliant films in the future.
My Rating: 5/5