Fear, anger, hatred, paranoia, mistrust, an inability to forgive…these are the cancers that rot away societies. This horrible, inevitable decay is at the core of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, which combines a combustible—and very human–societal allegory with breakthrough CGI effects, and intense, harrowing action sequences; resulting in one of the best films of summer 2014 so far.
It’s been ten years since humanity was ravaged by the simian super-flu unleashed in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, and those that didn’t succumb to the sickness were killed in the fighting and rioting that followed. By contrast, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of intelligent apes have flourished – living, learning, and hunting peacefully in a community deep within the forest. None of the apes have encountered a human in two years, until a small scouting party led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) enters the forest and has a brief, yet violent altercation with Caesar’s son and another young ape.
Caesar commands the humans to leave immediately, and they return to their band of survivors holed up in the ruined remains of San Francisco, under the leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). There we learn the humans need to restart a power plant at a dam near the ape settlement. Caesar’s scarred, hate-fueled second-in-command, Koba (Toby Kebbell) distrusts the humans and implores Caesar to show strength and attack. Caesar does not want war, but he agrees to a show of force and marches his ape army into San Francisco, warning the humans to stay where they are.
Dreyfus, desperate to have power restored, makes plans to invade the ape village with a cache of FEMA weapons and wipe them all out, but Malcolm convinces him to stave off the attack for three days, so he can go back up again with a small group and ask Caeser for permission to work on the dam. Caesar reluctantly agrees as long as the humans surrender their weapons and leave once the work at the dam is finished, but Koba remains antagonistic, and a series of events set the stage for tragedy and horror.
One of the best things Dawn Of The Planet Of Apes accomplishes from a narrative standpoint is that it doesn’t fully place the blame on either the humans or the apes’ shoulders. There are assholes in both camps; there are individuals who have lost everything and only cling to a survival instinct; there are those who still have hope in their hearts and new families to secure a future for. Both sides are only trying to preserve their way of life, and the inevitability of conflict, violence, an a war that will completely eradicate one side casts a palpable tension and a sense of foreboding doom over every frame of the film. And let me tell you, knowing what’s coming doesn’t make it any less impactful or heartbreaking when it finally descends into miscommunication, mistrust, betrayal, and a fiery apocalypse.
The digital apes, mo-capped on set by actors, then rendered and animated by the wizards at Weta Digital are nothing short of astonishing. Their hair is photo-realistic, moving naturally as the wind blows through it and becoming matted by blood or the constant rainfall. And the “uncanny valley?” Long gone. There is a soul living in the eyes of these creatures. I never once perceived them as anything other than real, tangible beings occupying the frame next to Keri Russel or Jason Clarke. When they are involved in the intense, large-scale action sequences—riding horses through flames and a hailstorm of machinegun fire—it’s as epic and jaw-dropping as you can imagine. When someone tells you we are at a point in digital effects filmmaking now where virtually anything is possible, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is living proof; it’s an incredible visual experience.
Though the human performances are merely serviceable (I was kind of shocked by Oldman’s brief, bookend screen time), the apes shine, spearheaded, of course, by another Andy Serkis mo-cap tour de force here as Caesar. Serkis imbues the character with so much humanity, strength, and pathos, that you can’t help but agree some sort of Academy Award needs to be given out for motion-capture performers (even though, in my view, the guy is getting close to deserving a straight-up best actor award.) Simple words like “NO!” or “GO” are delivered with such power and conviction it almost makes you tremble inside. Caesar is righteous and honorable, but fearsome and forceful when he needs to be; he embodies the best of humanity, which is why it cuts so deeply when hate undercuts those qualities.
Brilliant as Andy Serkis is, he almost has the film stolen out from under him by Toby Kebell’s Koba. He is a seething pot of rage and mistrust – and for good reasons. Koba was the ape who was subject to the most slicing and prodding—both physically and psychologically—by the human scientists in Rise. Caesar had the benefit of being cared for by humans and seeing their best traits, while Koba knows only the evil that dwells in them. One of the best scenes in the film is a moment between Caesar and Koba, where Koba is prodding Caesar to get rid of the humans. Caesar shrugs Koba off and tells him they will leave when they finish their human work. Koba points to his various scars and rages, “HUMAN. WORK.” It’s chilling. That dichotomy fuels their every interaction, culminating in final hand-to-hand showdown brimming with emotional and physical savagery.
Shining a light on humanity’s base traits—both wicked and good—by casting us as apes, zombies, aliens, etc., is allegorical sci-fi storytelling 101, but the grande dame that is the Planet Of The Apes franchise has always handled it subtly and in a wildly entertaining manner. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes continues that tradition and expands on it tenfold; it’s a powerful, haunting, emotional, action-fueled, metaphor-filled, resonant parable, and one hell of a summer blockbuster experience. Perhaps more importantly, it proves summer genre fare can rise above narrative-free, disasterporn shlock.
4 out of 5 stars.