***This article contains mild spoilers from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.***
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes arrives 13 years after Tim Burton’s woeful 2001 remake all but killed the franchise and three years after director Rupert Wyatt successfully rebooted it with the surprisingly excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Now, Wyatt has departed, and in his place Matt Reeves, helmer of Cloverfield and Let Me In, has been tasked with securing the franchise’s future with a successful follow-up.
And he has done it: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not just a superior successor to Rise, but in terms of sheer quality filmmaking, storytelling, character-building, and thematic depth, it is probably only bested by the classic 1968 original. Not only that, but Reeves (working from a script by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback) has made a great science fiction film, period, and one of the best genre offerings of any kind in 2014. Dawn is rich, gripping, frightening and ultimately moving, with a thoughtful, melancholy tone that has been the hallmark of this series at its very best.
The film opens 10 years after the events of Rise and sketches in what happened in between in an eerie opening montage: the same lab-produced drug that evolved the intelligence of the apes has unleashed a worldwide epidemic of the ALZ-113 virus that has wiped out most of the world’s human population and led to the collapse of civilization. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the ape who led his people to open rebellion in Rise, has established a peaceful, orderly community of chimps, orangutans, gorillas, and other species in the forests outside of San Francisco. He and several other simians now speak rudimentary English, and have developed a complex sign language of their own as well.
Before long, however, some humans from a community of survivors holed up in a compound in San Francisco (led by Jason Clarke’s Malcolm) are dispatched to restart a hydro-electric plant in the wilderness near the apes’ village. The humans desperately need that power, and Caesar reluctantly agrees to work with them over the objections of animal-testing survivor Koba (Toby Kebbell) and even his own son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). At the same time, Malcolm has to convince many of his compatriots — including their ape-hating leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who wants to exterminate the simians as revenge for the loss of his family in the plague — that the apes simply want peace. It is these dynamics — the turmoil in each group as well as the larger tension between the two fledgling societies — that bring a profound sense of relevance and poignancy to the film, so rare in a summer action tentpole and in a lot of what passes for big budget sci-fi these days.
That philosophical and sociological backdrop has always been a part of the Apes franchise and is perhaps given its finest, most layered development here. Yet, Reeves brilliantly finds a way to weave those concerns into a suspenseful thriller while also delivering on both the quiet moments and the big set pieces. There is a pitched, momentous battle two-thirds of the way through the film that is striking not just for its breathless action (and a few startling shots, such as the POV from the top of a tank) but for its emotional weight: the viewer is aware at all times that this exercise in death and destruction could have been prevented, which gives it a resonance that you won’t find in most modern sci-fi action (here’s looking at you, Transformers).
That measured approach extends to the characters as well, although it’s safe to say that the humans are less well-realized that their simian counterparts. Malcolm, his girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell), and Dreyfus are all defined by the losses they experienced in the plague and not much more, although Clarke and Russell bring a warmth and humanity to their performances that goes a long way toward making them more three-dimensional than they first appear, and helps make some of the clunky expository dialogue go down easier. Oldman is fine but his Dreyfus never comes across as more than a single-minded villain; his absence from most of the second act also takes a toll on any empathy that might been established for him.
The movie is called Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, however, and that is where the characterizations, assisted by some of the most astonishing motion capture technology yet seen, excel. Top of the chain, of course, is Serkis as Caesar, who bests his work in Rise with a performance that is not just award-worthy but groundbreaking. Caesar is strong, physically commanding, and battle-hardened, yet also weary, humane, and even afraid. Serkis plays his complex range of emotions perfectly (with the help of the incredible Weta Digital mo-cap machine) and makes Caesar both a heroic and tragic figure. Kebbell must also draw praise for his portrayal of Koba, who is torn between his fierce loyalty to Caesar and hatred for the humans who once tortured him, while Karin Konoval brings an old-soul wisdom and sadness to the orangutan Maurice, giving him some of the movie’s more affecting moments.
The rest of the apes are vividly realized through CGI that is nearly perfect, an all the more remarkable feat when one realizes that Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin have shot the film largely on location and outdoor sets. The images are lustrous and atmospheric throughout, and while the 3D overlay is not distracting, it also doesn’t seem particularly necessary for the film’s cinematic look. Michael Giacchino has composed a terrific, percussive score while also paying subtle homage to previous Apes composers like Jerry Goldsmith and Leonard Rosenman.
Just as Rise loosely followed the chronology and narrative arc of 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn is even more lightly inspired — in the most bare-bones sense — by the events of the following year’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Yet on the other hand, the two films couldn’t be more different: Battle was the last gasp of a franchise that had run its initial course and served primarily as a way to bring the series full circle. Dawn expands on the story in much bigger and bolder strokes and, with a bleak ending that is an Apes trademark, points the way toward bringing us parts of the history and mythology that have only previously been hinted at. The imagination, intelligence, and storytelling power at work in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes us eager for more — a rare achievement for a 46-year-old series on its eighth film.