In a mainstream filmmaking climate where safe bets are chosen over risks seemingly every time, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes stands as a stark, thrilling anomaly: a multi-million dollar tragedy that is as brilliantly told as it is visually striking. Simply put, this movie shouldn’t exist.
A decade after a deadly, laboratory-grown ‘simian flu’ has swept across the planet, humanity has fallen from its perch. As the opening credits glide by, the fate of our species is summed up in a single line: “Most of us were killed by the disease. The rest were killed in the fighting.”
On the outskirts of San Francisco, the pandemic’s epicentre, a new breed of genetically-modified ape rules the wilderness, led by Caesar – the smart, noble flashpoint for the previous film’s events. Caesar now has a wife and son, and he and his fellow apes have managed to build up a secure, peaceful society among the rocks and trees. But one day, Caesar and his tribe discover that a group of surviving humans still exists in the ruins of San Francisco. One human, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), emerges as a representative for his fellow survivors, and Caesar hopes to build a bond of trust between the two species. Inevitably, bloodthirsty forces on both sides of the human-ape divide conspire to throw the uneasy alliance into chaos.
From the opening shot, in which apes hunt deer through lush forests, Cloverfield and Let Me In director Matt Reeves (taking over from Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes’ Rupert Wyatt) builds up an air of not only realism, but unusual tension. Even as we’re given a tour of the apes’ idyllic community, where we see the gentle orangutan Maurice teaching young apes how to read and write, there’s a sense of foreboding and unease. The scale Reeves and his army of visual effects artists at Weta have achieved here is exceptional, both in terms of the apes’ realism and the imagination present in every shot. But what’s more important is not merely the quality of the visual effects themselves, but how effectively they’re used to tell Dawn’s story.
Case in point: Andy Serkis’ startling performance as Caesar. It’s easy to forget that what we’re seeing is a processed version of actor Serkis, his movements and expressions captured on a computer and then used to create the super-intelligent leader of the apes – the strength of both the effects and Serkis’ performance is such that the artistry becomes almost invisible. Caesar’s turbulent history can be read in his limpid, world-weary eyes; the few words he speaks come from deep down in his chest, as though every syllable is conjured up through sheer force of will.
Where so many expensive movies attempt to entertain with a complex plot or through sheer stylistic aggression, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes relies instead on dramatic weight. Between them, writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback have come up with a simple story of two species on a collision course, and that collision is all the more inevitable because of the emotional similarities between ape and human. Among the apes, there is fear and resentment of the humans who once dominated them – fears easily whipped up by the duplicitous Koba (Toby Kebbell), whose hatred towards homo sapiens is longstanding and subtly described. Among the humans, there’s Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who sees the apes as mere animals who ought to be swept aside for the safety of his own species.
Reeves deepens the drama further by showing the goodness both sides share: their desire to protect their loved ones; Malcolm and Caesar’s desperation to avoid conflict at any cost. Eventually, however, the floodgates open, and the violence of the film’s second half is all the more gut-wrenching thanks to the surety of the build-up.
With Michael Giacchino’s thunderous score as the backwash, Dawn builds to an intense final third, as old grudges come spilling out and plans begin to unravel. The naturalism of Michael Seresin’s subtly-lit and framed cinematography pays off here, as scenes which could have been the stuff of B-movie goofiness instead play out with extraordinary force. Without drifting into spoiler territory, we can safely say that Kobal emerges as one of the most cunning and downright intimidating screen villains of the year so far.
Dawn is perhaps one of the most satisfying sequels since Aliens, in that it is both a continuation of the previous film and a comprehensive escalation of it. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was effective as a tender drama and a prison-break thriller. Dawn expands the canvas still further, creating the kind of primal sci-fi war movie that probably wouldn’t have even been possible a decade or so ago. As if this wasn’t impressive enough, Dawn dares to deal with the topic of war truthfully; it shows how easily the balance of peace can spin out of control, and how devastating the results can be.
As a summer film, Dawn is difficult to fault. Its performances, from Jason Clarke via Keri Russell (who plays Malcolm’s wife), to Gary Oldman and the actors behind the apes (among them Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Doc Shaw and Judy Greer as well as Serkis and Kebbell) are uniformly excellent. As a story, Dawn bewitches from beginning to end, from its angst-filled opening to its spectacular, action-filled climax.
Here’s a film so technically well-made and impeccably told that the triumph of its visual effects and the clarity of its writing and acting all meld into one, seamless whole. The portrait it builds of humankind, often well-meaning yet constantly thwarted by its flaws, may be a downbeat one, but that is simply another reason why it’s such an incredible filmmaking achievement.
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes should not exist – but we’re hugely grateful that it does.
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is out in UK cinemas on the 17th July.
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