Trust, Jealousy, and Equality are rather Shakespearean brush strokes with which to paint a summer blockbuster, especially when the movie is about talking apes with guns. The marketing for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes would have you believe it’s set piece after set piece of CG apes fighting humans in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, but a large part of Dawn quietly revolves around the big ideas of what it means to be human and the good and bad that goes along with that. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes largely succeeds in presenting these ideas via breathtaking special effects and another phenomenal performance from Andy Serkis, even if the storyline feels like a simple amalgamation of several classic tales.
Ten years have passed since Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and the “Simean Flu” has completely overtaken the Earth. One in 500 humans are immune to the virus that, if you remember from the original film, was created in a lab by James Franco (I always knew that he’d be behind the apocalypse). The group of survivors in Dawn have taken shelter in downtown San Francisco, while the apes have established their own territory in Muir Woods, just across the Golden Gate Bridge, where the climax of Rise took place. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his friends have been busy; they have cool tree houses to live in, methods of transportation, and a school system for all of the newborn, genetically evolved apes to maximize their potential. It’s a tribe that Caesar is proud to be the head of and a family that he would do anything to protect.
When a recon group of humans is sent into the woods to investigate a dam, the only remaining option for power to supply an increasingly desperate population, Caesar crosses paths with scientist Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and doctor Ellie (Keri Russell), among others. Caesar and Malcolm see themselves in one another, and despite rising tensions from both sides, they try to peacefully work together to help everyone survive, much to the chagrin of Koba (Toby Kebbell), Caesar’s right hand ape and one of the more abused characters from Rise. What unfolds is a slow burn of inner-family turmoil and race relations (am I still talking about a summer action movie?), peppered with some explosive action sequences.
Once again, the success of this film rests on the shoulders of Andy Serkis and the WETA Digital effects team, who have worked together on Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and the first Planet of the Apes film. The suspension of disbelief is paramount when the audience is asked to identify with horseback riding chimps, and the team manages to pull it off extremely well. The close-ups of the apes in particular illustrate the Oscar-worthy work being done here, and it provides Serkis with the canvas to create an extremely compelling character with few words. For these reasons alone, the film will stand above other films this year and perhaps even over time.My issue with Dawn is that it tackles too many primal ideas at once with tropes that we’ve all seen many times over, leaving the viewer without much to chew on once the downright stellar special effects fade into the background. There are idiotic character choices, not a single memorable action sequence that sticks out, and the plot twists can be seen from a mile away and yet are told with no sense of foreboding, leaving the reveals to lack the punch and urgency Dawn needed to become a truly great film.
This movie reminded me of many others, but mostly The Dark Knight Rises and The Lion King come to mind. While that’s mostly a compliment, I absolutely adored Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the ambitious, original emotions it evoked. Dawn did not have that, perhaps due in part to the further departure from reality, perhaps because we’ve seen Shakespeare (Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, & Julius Ceasar) too many times, or maybe I’m just overly critical of a film that features monkeys wielding machine guns. In any case, set your expectations appropriately for what some are calling “The Best Movie of the Year.”Absolutely see it, and it doesn’t need to be in 3D.