Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Saw this one the other night. This really is a top-notch year for big budget movies.

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Starring:
Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell
Director:
Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In)
Rating: M
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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a rather stupid title. Yes, I understand this. So did its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, three years ago. The naming scheme hasn’t gotten any better and it looks like we’re stuck with it as we move on to the next installment in another couple of years. So let’s get over it, because Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is yet another really good 2014 blockbuster. It improves on the already awesome Rise in a number of ways and makes me really keen to see where the ambitious Planet of the Apes prequel franchise goes next.

This is one of those movie sequels where it’s recommended you see the previous film, as there are a couple of scenes that work far better if you have. It’s not necessary, however, as Dawn opens with pretty much the exact scene that closed the original prequel. Essentially all you need to know is that most of the planet Earth was wiped out by a so-called “simian flu”, one created by humans in a laboratory no less. The same virus has also granted a group of apes heightened intelligence to the point of being able grasp the concept of virtues and vices, to communicate via sign language and, with some effort, even speech.

The protagonist of the first movie, Caesar (played with typical panache by motion capture vet Andy Serkis and animated so well it’s scary) is now ten years older and takes the role of de facto leader of a community of apes in the early stages of civilised life. Thinking the humans completely extinct, things get complicated when his son Blue Eyes runs into a small gaggle of survivors from a human colony trying to use a nearby dam for crucial hydroelectric power. Neither the humans nor the apes trust one another, and with scarred lab-rat ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) on one side and pragmatic survivalist leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) on the other, a tense standoff ensues over the territory. And something’s gotta give.

The best thing going for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the way it tackles its themes of political tension and war. There’s a very scary humanity in the way the apes react as a community to the existence of the human colony and Caesar’s personal struggles with his family are heart-wrenching. The film also explores themes about the necessity of leadership in a way that hasn’t necessarily been done in a Hollywood movie before – at least not in a recent one. There isn’t a lot of fat in the film’s run time either and things move along at a pretty decent pace. The result is certainly refreshing for a modern action blockbuster but also comes at the expense of some of the cast’s more interesting supporting characters. Singling out just who gets shafted in terms of screen time (on both the human and ape sides) might be read as a spoiler, but I wouldn’t have minded a bit of a longer look at them. There’s also a bit too much talky exposition, particularly when the humans are on screen, that probably didn’t need to be spelled out, but I can understand the writers wanting to cover their bases there.

As tactful as Dawn‘s themes are, the movie certainly doesn’t scrimp on delivering memorable action. There are plenty of visually impressive action set pieces to find here, and each one has real purpose and emotional weight behind it. In particular, there are a couple of scenes towards the end of the second act that will be burned into my memory for plenty of time to come. Director Matt Reeves, probably best known for slow-burn horror/thriller movies thus far in his career, proves he can shoot apes with machine guns just fine. And of course, huge props must go to Weta Digital, who have surely used magic to craft such realistic, living, reactive, believable apes on screen. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is another addition to a stellar line-up of 2014 tentpole films, poor title or not, that will make my year-end list one hell of a headache to assemble.

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THE VERDICT

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Good:
Incredible CGI work and mo-cap performance, pertinent mature themes, tight narrative, cool action sequences
Bad:
Characterisation of supporting cast suffers
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4.5 VsI N C R E D I B L E

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