No more and no less than a very good sequel, as well as an unacknowledged remake, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes asserts its own identity early.
Director Matt Reeves, who has done this sort of thing before with Let Me In, his striking remake of the Swedish ‘modern vampire’ film Let the Right One In, starts with the apes in a world of their own. Having escaped from the clutches of their human oppressors, the apes have established a close-knit community deep in the Muir Woods outside San Francisco. Caesar (Andy Serkis), an ape born in captivity whose intelligence was boosted by an experimental drug, is the leader, but he faces continual challenges. Koba (Toby Kebbell), a battle-scarred veteran, has vastly more painful memories of his human captivity than does Caesar, and recoils at any thought of reconciliation with humans. Caesar’s own son has become increasingly rebellious, and Caesar struggles to keep his community united.
Meanwhile, the potential threat of the humans remains. A worldwide epidemic has reduced them to a desperate group of survivors huddled together in the city, with deep resentment toward apes, who have been blamed for the epidemic that wiped out most of mankind. They venture into the woods in search of a dam power station, with the hope of restoring electricity to the city. But they are also stockpiling weapons, and are ready to take up arms and go to war with the apes, if need be.
If Caesar represents the best of the apes — and he does — Malcolm (Jason Clarke) represents the best of mankind. Both have suffered personal losses, both want the best for their families, friends, and comrades, and both want peace, but at what cost? The essential dilemma of the movie plays out much as one might expect. Each side has naysayers, the ones who are prophets of doom and gloom, convinced that they are acting in the best interests of their species; the protagonists must tussle with the naysayers as much as anyone else. Survival is the name of the game, but, again, what price war?
The most effective sequences are those set in the world of the apes. They coexist with nature as peacefully as they can, carving out their dwelling places in an unobtrusive manner, and communicate through sign language and rudimentary words spoken gruffly in English. It is not an easy existence, and they must remain on guard against the possibility of human intrusion, but they are reasonably content.
The broad strokes of the screenplay, credited to Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback, are borrowed from 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, in a similar fashion to how Rise of the Planet of the Apes was inspired by 1972’s Conquest of the Battle of the Apes — only more so. Having seen the fifth installment of the franchise recently, I was surprised by the large number of story beats that are recycled in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Still, there’s a vast difference between the two, mainly because of the vastly larger production budget. Every aspect of the production has been upgraded in a thoughtful, creative manner; James Chinlund’s production design especially shines (darkly) in the apes’ community, while the cinematography by Michael Seresin — who photographed most, if not all, of Alan Parker’s notable films in the 1970s and 80s — contributes mightily to the gloomy atmosphere. Michael Giacchino’s original music score once again strikes the right notes without drawing undue attention.
With all these positive elements in play, not to mention fine lead performances by Serkis and Clarke, and solid supporting work by Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, and Toby Kebbell, it’s disappointing that the film begins to lose steam right at the moment when the intensity should be ramping up. From its opening sequences, the movie itself has been pointing toward an inevitable confrontation between the apes and mankind, so the protracted conversations on the subject during the run-up become repetitive without adding any additional nuance to the discussion.
While I’ve often wished for blockbusters to be more thoughtful, this is a rare case when too much thoughtfulness actually slows the picture down, so that I was itching for action. And when that finally erupts, it’s unevenly paced, leaving the third act a bit of a mess.
Those concerns aside, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is very good for what it is: the latest installment in a beloved franchise that has been reborn with vim and vigor.
The film opens wide throughout Dallas on Friday, July 11.