Now having watched all of the Planet of the Apes movies, it’s fascinating how the series views not only history, but trying to understand why civilizations rise and fall. While there are always the broad strokes of good (Caesar, Cornelius, Zira) and bad (Hasslein, Breck, Aldo), there’s always a concern of how these figures are followed or abandoned. History will always have charismatic leaders and people who are motivated by fear, so how to these people guide the evolution or dissolution of a society? Matt Reeves‘ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes perfectly captures this question by creating a microcosm of two civilizations reaching an inevitable clash and how their futures are both conflicting and intertwined. The movie manages to take almost all the best aspects of its predecessors to create a summer blockbuster that is heartfelt, exhilarating, tragic, and profound.
Mankind has been ravaged by the Simian Flu followed by war, and only modest groups of human colonies remain. Meanwhile, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes have flourished and thrived in the Muir Woods. They’ve become smarter, self-sufficient, built an impressive dwelling, and have a tight-knit community built on laws such as “Ape Shall Not Kill Ape” and “Apes Together Strong”. Caesar leads his community with wisdom and has also become a family ape with his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), newborn child, and son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). However, Caesar’s life is disrupted when Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his small band of humans accidentally stumble into the apes’ territory while trying to repair a dam that will supply power to their colony. Caesar must then decide if he can protect his apes through isolationism, a tenuous truce, or agreeing with his chief lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell), who wants to launch a pre-emptive strike against the humans.
Most of the Apes films have dealt with the interspecies conflict between humans and apes, and while that’s still present in Dawn, this is the first movie in the franchise to seriously explore conflict within the ape community and how the burgeoning civilization will establish its direction. This sentiment is cleverly encapsulated in the relationship between Caesar, Koba, and Blue Eyes. The guidance provided by these two father figures isn’t subtle, but it also isn’t overbearing. It’s organic to the relationship among the characters, and the emotional authenticity grounds the overarching theme of whether the future of the apes will be decided by wisdom (Caesar) or fear (Koba).
Thankfully, the movie doesn’t draw Koba as one-dimensional villain. He doesn’t exist just to be a foil and an antagonist. It’s not just that he was tortured and experimented upon by humans while Caesar had a positive upbringing. Koba has a legitimate grievance and concern for what the humans will do if they’re able to generate a reliable source of electric power and then reestablish communication with other colonies or even the military (assuming the military even still exists). We know it’s in our nature to expand and to dominate weaker civilizations. The notion that apes and humans can co-exist is an admirable goal; it’s not a foregone conclusion.
Because the apes are a nascent civilization (only ten years have passed since the outbreak), they’re also a fragile one. Even Caesar is ambivalent about what to do for his people. While Koba is inflexible in his hatred towards humans, Caesar is torn between isolationism and knowing that there are still good people out there. For every scared, aggressive human like Carver (Kirk Acevedo), a twitchy engineer the humans need to restart the dam, or Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the colony’s wary leader, there are honest folks like Malcolm, his wife Ellie (Keri Russell), and his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Koba and Dreyfus may feel more comfortable dividing the world into “us” and “them”, but that usually rips the world apart with violent consequences.
The sequel’s closest relative in the franchise is Battle for the Planet of the Apes except the new movie is better in every single way. Where Battle was scattered in how to handle its subtext and hamstrung by budgetary limitations, Dawn fully realizes how violence and war is a natural and depressing evolution of a developing society. When MacDonald says in Battle, “They just joined the human race,” the line applies far better to Dawn than his own movie. And more impressively, Dawn has the restraint to acknowledge the gravity of such a sentiment.
In my review of Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I noted how the reboot broke from traditional blockbusters in several ways. Reeves goes even further by crafting a film that astoundingly walks the line between an exhilarating summer action movie and a thoughtful meditation on how war shatters and reshapes societies. At one point, Reeves has the opportunity for a slam-bang, explosion-filled fight. Instead, he plays it for tragedy. The scene is beautifully constructed (there’s a moment involving a tank that’s one of my favorite shots of the year), but emotionally resonant. This story is much bigger than one set piece.
And while those set pieces are impressive, the Apes series continues its tradition of focusing on the characters, and this is arguably the most character-driven piece in the series thus far. Yes, the human characters are still thinly drawn—they’re pretty easy to divide into “good” and “bad” even though actors’ performances are admirable—but the most compelling conflict comes from the apes, and we feel it from the amazing work by Serkis and Kebbell.
While the Academy will never recognize Serkis for an individual performance (they’re too hung up on whether digital makeup counts and probably a little scared that VFX designers have found a way to take actors’ jobs), I would be shocked if he doesn’t win a lifetime achievement award of some kind. He hasn’t just become synonymous with mo-cap acting; he has given excellent performances that were augmented by visual effects, but never defined by them. Anyone who knows how mo-cap works with performance knows that it ultimately has to come from the actor and the script. It’s why we still talk about Gollum but not Jake Sully. Serkis’ latest turn as Caesar is even more impressive this time around, not only because Caesar can now speak, but because the movie doesn’t wholly rely on it. He chooses his words carefully, and his facial expressions and movements speak as loudly as his voice.
Kebbell isn’t associated with motion-capture work, but Dawn shows he has a serious knack for it. Koba has to match Caesar beat-for-beat. We have to see that every ounce of the character’s hatred stems from justifiable pain and even if his villainy becomes a bit one-dimensional as the movie goes on, it’s still balanced by the nuance of Kebbell’s performance. Where Serkis comforts us with Caesar’s thoughtfulness of Caesar, Kebbell terrifies us with Koba’s hatred because both actors have found the humanity within the apes. Watching Dawn, I wanted to see a cut without the visual effects, not because they hamstring the film, but because I wanted to see how one informed the other.
The folks at WETA have upped their game yet again with Dawn. It is their most impressive film yet as they’ve not only made the apes even more photorealistic (there are some shots in the movie where if you put the digital ape next to a real ape, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference), but because they’re so good at making sure the animation always stems from the actor’s performance. And there are moments where it doesn’t always come together. Specifically, I felt like Blue Eyes/Thurston spends most of the movie looking confused, so it’s more difficult to get lost in his performance. The character is a great symbol for the larger conflict, and eventually Blue Eyes does fit into place as an individual, but even in his weakest moments, the CGI remains jaw-dropping and it’s never a crutch. This movie showcases digital effects at their best—a tool being used to tell a story in the most effective way possible.
It’s a story that doesn’t fit easily into a summer movie season. Blockbusters are supposed to send us out of the auditorium cheering, but more importantly, they’re supposed to stay with us after we’ve left the theater. They leave an impact. Most of the time, it’s a positive impact. We’re excited; we saw images that stretched our imaginations; we keep turning the movie over in our heads and want to talk about it with others. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does all of this, but it also has the intelligence and the courage to consider the cost of war, the fragility of communities, and the great and terrible power of dominant individuals. It won’t leave you cheering, but it will leave you awestruck.