Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Cloverfield director Matt Reeves really ups the ante for the Apes franchise in this sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Directed by Cloverfield’s Matt Reeves, this latest instalment of the Apes franchise may in fact be the best of the more recent offerings. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes focuses on the strained relationship between a society of super-evolved apes and a group of humans living in the ruins of San Francisco, who have managed to survive a worldwide epidemic of ‘Simian Flu’. The film showcases not only brilliant effects, but also great characterisation, and continues the Apes tradition of posing significant questions about the nature of humanity.

Obviously Weta Digital’s CGI is insanely good – you get the feeling that every single hair on every single ape has a number and its own motivation – but the real sets are pretty stunning too, particularly the entrance to the ape forest city with its unnerving skull sculptures and jagged log battlements (we’re a long way from the Forest Moon of Endor).

Depth of character, for both apes and humans, is achieved so skilfully we almost don’t notice it happening. Andy Serkis is his usual brilliant and brooding self as ape leader Caesar, while Jason Clarke puts in a tense and feeling performance as Malcolm, human envoy to the apes. Even Gary Oldman, whose character Dreyfus gets limited screen time, really pulls at the heartstrings when he comes across some old pictures of his smiling family (who, we are to assume, died from either the flu or the fighting). Everyone in the film has lost somebody, or seen too much.

The only real low point is the film’s one dimensional token douchebag character Carver, played by Kirk Avecedo. We’re never given any reason at all for Carver’s simmering ape-hatred (an ape didn’t roast and eat his pet dog while he looked on aghast, for example). He hates the apes because the plot calls for him to hate the apes. At least Caesar’s second in command Koba’s psychotic hatred of the humans is justified; he was tortured and experimented on by humans. In fact, one of the film’s most affecting scenes has Koba responding to Caesar’s request to let the humans finish their ‘human work’ by pointing to each one of his scars and growling ‘human work!’ in his newly formed speech (all credit to performance capture actor Toby Kebbell).

Also impressive is how the film manages to be relatively unpredictable, even though the viewer already knows that everything is going to go to pot (the series ain’t called Planet of the Apes for nothin’). This is partly due to our soft-hearted wish to see the apes and the humans continue to get along, trading comic books and babysitting each other’s kids on a Friday night (if there’s any CGI character in the world cuter than Caesar’s baby son, I don’t want to know about it). We’re so eager to see things go right for this broken society that it actually comes as quite a shock when the inevitable breakdown occurs.

Plus (very slight spoilers here) the tipping point is cleverly presented as being caused by both apes and humans, with most of the blame falling on the apes. Right from the very beginning, one of the main cruxes of the whole Apes franchise has been to effectively illustrate how similar we all are, not just to apes, but to other humans. We’re all just as good, as bad, and as ugly as each other, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does a pretty sterling job of reminding us of that.

Keep your eyes peeled for the next instalment; Reeves is currently attached to direct, and it looks like the final battle between apes and humans will hit our screens in 2016.

Best Performance: It has to be Andy Serkis as Caesar, although Toby Kebbell as Koba gives him a run for his perf-cap money

Best Scene: The final fight scene on the top of the collapsing tower

Best Line: “You are no ape.” – Caesar

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