MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’

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Film: Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
Starring: Jason Clarke, Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman
Directed By: Matt Reeves

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes builds on the foundation laid by its predecessor in ways that are both stunning and deeply satisfying.

Ten years have passed since the events witnessed in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes when the latest film, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes opens. In that time, humans have largely died off, and those that have survived have sought shelter in the dystopian remains of our great cities. The apes, who have spent the past decade developing a society and culture entirely their own, still live in the woods outside San Francisco and wait for the day when humans return. For the past two years things have been uncommonly quiet, but not long after the film begins humans and apes cross paths, and though no one knows it at the time each side immediately begins laying the groundwork for the chaos that will soon follow.

Matt Reeves took on the kind of challenge few directors ever dare attach their name to when he decided to enter the world of Apes, but to his credit he has created a film that is wholly unique in a world inundated with knock-offs, sequels, and remakes. He does this by placing the focus not on the humans, but on the apes and the society they have developed in the years since the events of the first film. The majority of Dawn’s first act is guided by subtitles and the apes’ sign language, which allows viewers to better understand how advanced their society has become in recent years. You knew they would learn language based on the first film, but you may not have expected schools, laws, and a universally accepted moral code. They’re just like us, only a more extreme version, and exploring the ins and outs of their unique society is an experience rarely found on the big screen.

Had Reeves decided to stop exploring the apes’ culture at this point the film would still be great, but unlike many filmmakers he uses the rules and codes of this new society to help guide the events of the film. It’s not a lot of useless information and colorful flourishes, but rather details pertinent to the events that will soon follow. In order to fully understand why the characters behave the way they do you need to appreciate where they come from, and in Dawn viewers have the opportunity to see and understand both sides of a very complicated problem. It’s the kind of plot you can sink your teeth into over and over again because there is just so much to explore and learn. You’re not visiting a new world, you’re a part of it. You understand the flow of life and what each group needs to be happy. You’re a part of the action.

Even though the focus of Dawn is largely on the apes there is still a lot to love (and hate) about the humans who are still walking the Earth. They have no interest in fighting with the apes, but due to a fuel shortage they have realized the only chance at survival they have is to restart a dam that has long been out of service on the outskirts of San Francisco. It’s during the search for that dam that their paths first cross with apes, and it’s largely because of their desire to not live without power that first cause tension to rise. People, like apes, are afraid of the creatures and society they do not understand. They only know fear because that’s all they have ever witnessed, and it takes the caring spirit of one man (Jason Clarke) for conversation between the two sides to even begin.

The performances on both sides of the war are fantastic throughout Dawn, but the true star of the film is without a doubt Mr. Andy Serkis. His work as Caesar is some of the finest I have ever seen, especially if we’re only talking about actors who portray fully CG characters. The entire film hinges on audiences being able to forge a connection with a large, intelligent, and incredibly complicated ape who has just as many emotional issues as your ex-girlfriend, yet somehow Serkis makes you want to love him from the very first moments of the film. You know you should root for the humans, but the work Caesar has done to care for and raise up his own kind is incredibly beautiful and moving. He loves all apes like he loves his wife, Cornelia, or either of his sons. He also loves humans, even though he is hesitant to think about spending time with them.

Gary Oldman adds a nice bit of secondary tension as the loud and experienced Dreyfus. His main concern is the continued health and safety of people no matter what cost. This is good, of course, and certainly the kind of quality people would want in a dystopian leader, but as Caesar and Malcolm (Clarke) work towards peace it’s Dreyfus who becomes one of the lynchpins responsible for the impending downfall of society. That kind of role requires the ability to win the audience over before pulling the metaphorical wool over their eyes, which is precisely the kind of performance delivered by Oldman. You want to love him at first, but as the layers to his personality are pulled back you realize his intentions are far different than those of the people who seek peace and understanding.

Though it’s not considered a cast member, the CG in Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is equally applaud worthy. Reeves and his team have created a beautiful and vibrant world that is teeming with life and possibilities. The apes look big and strong, but the design work in this film goes far beyond the characters on screen. There is a thick fog to the whole event, making almost every scene feature some kind of mist, and that goes a long way towards conveying the feeling of lost hope that seems to weigh so heavy on the shoulders of both Caesar and many remaining humans. They’re all alive, yes, but what is living if you feel afraid to step outside of your so-called ‘comfort zone’? Add to this the ongoing stress of living in times of war and you have a recipe for tension and poor decision making that is prevalent throughout Dawn.

When the third act begins to wind down there is very little sense of resolution in the air. The battle at hand may have reached an end, or at least a temporary stopping point, but there are many questions that still need to be answered. That said, you cannot exactly expect everything to be wrapped up at the end of a ‘middle’ film in what will eventually become a full-blown trilogy. The resolution you’re given, however, is satisfying enough to keep the smile that has been spread across your face the preceding two hours cemented in place for several more days, if not weeks. Matt Reeves has created a living, breathing universe that welcomes you with open arms and offers a front row seat to the greatest battle mankind will ever face. It may be terrifying at times, but you never want it to end. Hell, when the credits roll you might walk back to the lobby and buy a ticket to the very next show just to spend a bit more time appreciating the thought and concern put into creating such an enthralling alternate reality. It’s that good.

If you only see one movie at the theater this year, make it Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. You will not be disappointed.

Score: A

Review written by: James Shotwell

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the founder of Under The Gun Review. He loves writing about music and movies almost as much as he loves his two fat cats. He's also the co-founder of Antique Records and the Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. You should probably follow him on Twitter.

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  • I love this movie