Continuing a stellar summer season is Matt Reeves’ follow up to 2011’s hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Picking up 10 years after Rise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes us to a post-apocalyptic world in which the Simian flu introduced at the end of the last film has wiped out the majority of the human race. Meanwhile hyper-intelligent chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his genetically advanced ape following have established their own peaceful society out in the woodlands, away from the remaining human survivors. However, when ape and human finally come into contact for the first time in years, tensions begin to rise and war seems inevitable, despite the efforts of individuals on both sides to maintain the peace.
Perhaps this sequel’s smartest move is the change over at the helm; gone is previous director Rupert Wyatt who did manage to deliver a competent and restrained origin story but struggled to really provide anything substantial or weighty beyond that. In his place steps Reeves (Cloverfield and Let Me In), bringing greater ambition, more sophisticated storytelling and plenty of heart. Reeve’s respectful, serious approach to the material ensures that Dawn emerges as something rather exceptional; not just a great sci-fi blockbuster, but a terrific film. There are more than a few heartbreaking moments (one involving Gary Oldman and old family photographs is profoundly moving) and there is an extraordinary depth on display that recalls The Dark Knight Trilogy. None of the characters ever feel one dimensional and, equally, the moral concerns at the core of the story never feels simplistic. The elements of the narrative can’t be reduced to “Humans are destructive” as there is virtue and guilt on both sides. Much has been made over the film’s pro-gun-control subtext and whilst it is easy to see where the outspoken parties are coming from (the sound of gunfire alone in multiple instances is alarmingly terrifying), Reeves never descends into preaching or spelling things out for his audience.
Reeves also clearly has an eye for creating striking and memorable visuals. Anyone who has seen Let Me In will recall the outstanding vehicular collision shown from the back seat of a car. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Reeves one ups himself with a magnificent set piece that sees the action unfold in the background, as the camera rotates along with the spinning turret of a tank. Most of the time however, the director is committed to seamless, smooth directing and to an avoidance of showy aesthetics, he is determined to let the story take the center stage and to quietly allow it run its course. Under his guidance the digesis also comes to life. Rarely do Sci-fi worlds feel as authentic and as real as they do here. The decision to film even the motion capture performances on location adds a dimension of reality previously unseen in CGI heavy films. On top of this, expert sound mixing, prolonged shot lengths and finessed photography, all bring the Reeves world to life, allowing for full immersion.
Suffice it to say, Serkis is once again stunning; his ability to totally become Caesar is still remarkable, but this time he might just have had the show stolen from him. Whilst the entire cast give solid performances, it is Toby Kebbell as the villainous Koba who takes the spotlight. Koba is one of the most fascinating and engaging villains in a long time, he is threatening, conniving and yet still well developed and fleshed out. He is the only villain this year to get a sizable amount of screen-time throughout. One scene in which he violently asserts his dominance in front of the weaker-willed apes is genuinely shocking and upsetting. However both Serkis and Kebbell are aided by the best motion capture technology committed to film to date. The achievement is so ingenious that it returns you to a time before making-of featurettes, when there was still a sense of wonder and there was still that hovering question “how did they do that?” The level of detail on display is breathtaking and the way the digitally realized apes interact with the environment is masterful, rain affects the creatures’ hair believably, blood looks real on the primates’ faces and the eyes honestly seem to have souls. You’ll end up being convinced that the production team have been conning you all along and all this motion capture business was just a ruse whilst they sneakily made use of real (and very emotive) apes when no one was looking.
In actual fact, “special” is a word that applies to almost every facet of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, from the truly awe-inspiring effects to the superb action sequences and the astonishing complexity of its allegory. But perhaps the most unique thing is how much it makes you want harmony to be maintained. It’s so unusual for an action film to really make you want everything to be resolved peacefully, the tentative pacing allows for emotional connection to the characters (on both sides) so that by the time events are set in motion for war, you are so invested that you hope war never comes and you no longer want the pyrotechnics you initially paid to see. Because Reeves takes his time, carefully building up layer by layer, giving each character their own specific motivations and emotional back-stories, the spectacle heavy climax feels deserved. You might not want it to happen, but when it all kicks off, it does so spectacularly.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), directed by Matt Reeves, is distributed in the UK by Twentieth Century Fox , Certificate 12a. Watch the trailer below: