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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 11, 2014
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I didn’t like Rise of the Planet of the Apes very much. It felt big and dumb, and like the whole idea of allegory went out the window for a cross between a typical hubris-of-scientists story and world-building setup for something else. Well, that something else has come, and some of that setup has started to pay off; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is really good.

It’s ten years after the intelligent chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) led a band of research apes on a rampage across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the redwoods of Marin County. They small band has multiplied, well, far more than can really be expected in ten years, but let’s just gloss over that little detail.

Human society has collapsed, brought down by the virus that raised the apes’ intelligence in the first place, now dubbed the “simian flu”. A few thousand people are left in the ruins of San Francisco, cut off from whoever else might be left out there. The leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), sends out a small group to find and repair a small hydroelectric dam before the fuel they use for generators runs out entirely.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his new, post-collapse wife Ellie (Keri Russell) lead the band into an uneasy truce with the apes. They make progress on restoring electricity, and look on hopefully as Malcolm’s son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) bonds with Maurice (Karin Konoval), a calm, wise orangutan, over his copy of Charles Burns’ Black Hole. But at least one member of the party isn’t so trusting; Carver (Kirck Acevedo) shoots one ape in fear early on, which doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, but he’s the only one who knows how the dam is supposed to work so they can’t just leave him behind.

Not all the apes are on board either. Caesar’s bonobo lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) still bears the scars of his former life in medical labs, and he doesn’t forgive so easily. Caesar’s son, River (Nick Thurston), is caught between his father’s cautious faith in humans — Ellie does use her medicine to save his monter (Judy Greer) — and the mistrust Koba urges — Carver nearly killed his best friend. Eventually something breaks, triggering an assault by the apes on the humans’ tenuous stronghold, and threatening a collapse in the apes’ own society.

The biggest departure from the original movies’ approach is that the new Apes movies focus primarily on, well, the apes. Caesar and his family are the real stars here, and the real fight is for the soul of the apes’ society; humans are on the way out. As an examination of tribalism and separatist movements, Dawn succeeds admirably.

But most people will take in the message by osmosis; the audience is coming for the spectacle. And boy, does it deliver. The motion capture work is excellent, with Serkis the master leading a whole cast of mo-cap actors. The action is clear and gripping, and director Matt Reeves delivers at least two fantastic extended takes. The shot from a tank at the climax of the first ape assault is worth the price of admission alone.

So as a sci-fi action special-effects blockbuster, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes surpasses the first installment of this series, which should draw in the summer movie crowd. But the real success here is the return of allegory and social commentary to one of the great science fiction franchises of all time.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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