Sitting down with the original Planet of the Apes is a requirement for sci-fi exposure and a profound one at that. It’s hard to imagine how audiences in 1968 reacted to the striking imagery of apes enslaving man, the shocking conclusion, and the social relevancy that went with it. Mind-blowing might be a good guess.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes follows in its ancestor’s footsteps, in that sense, as a more mind-blowing film likely won’t be found this summer (maybe even this year). Not just because it has the requisite summer action and showy special effects we expect — because it has so very much more than that.
Nearly a decade after the events of the previous movie, the simian virus that gave chimp Caesar and his ape brethren heightened intelligence has killed off nearly all of the human race. An older, wiser Caesar is now a father and leads a fully functioning community of apes in the Redwoods. But things quickly get out of control as a band of human survivors make their presence known, bringing out the best and worst in both groups.
Dawn takes all the good things we saw in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, of which there were many, and carries them forward to become amazing. Like our future simian overlords, things have evolved. Stakes are higher, digital effects showier, performances harder-hitting, and emotional impact more resonant — simply put, Dawn excels in every way it can and beyond.
The latest Apes entry manages to feel both like its own film endeavor and a distinctly Planet of the Apes experience. Rise had faint echoes of the ’68 classic; Dawn has harsh whispers and growing murmurs of it. Maybe its because we’re witnessing a mid-ground between James Franco curing Alzheimer’s and Charlton Heston lamenting the state of mental illness treatment. Director Matt Reeves picks things up at a major turning point it the Apes universe and the film plays off of every ounce of tension from it.
Emotions run high here, especially the feeling of dread. More so than action, nearly every exchange is on the razor’s edge — the situation is constantly this close to boiling over and becoming chaotic. Of course it must happen and when it does, you can’t help but get the feeling that they’re taking cues straight from the original film, while rightly adapting them for this film. The film has already been referred to as the best sequel since The Dark Knight and it’s not a coincidental comparison. Like the Batman sequel, Dawn takes things in a considerably darker direction and has that same familiar “edge of your seat” feeling throughout.
But when things are not about to explode, the emotional core of the film, exploring family, community, war and prejudice, proves just how mature and thoughtful this new series really is. The film actually has something to say on these matters and isn’t afraid of letting the character relationships and themes come first. You may have to wait sometimes for action pieces to break out but it feels all the more rewarding when they do.
The first 20 minutes of the film alone feature very little dialogue, yet may as well be the basis for a masterclass in visual storytelling where less is more. It’s the little things that make the difference, like the apes mostly using sign language and sharp, focused storytelling revolving around character that make the biggest difference. And then there are simply amazing moments that pop up throughout, highlighted by what will ultimately come to be known as “the Rotating Turret Shot”.
Of course, it’s all beautifully brought to life by the cast, human and ape alike. Andy Serkis, the absolute ace in the hole of the series, once again makes mince meat out of all acting barriers and brings a new, refined Caesar to life. Jason Clarke does a serviceable job as Malcolm, leader of the human community and Caesar’s doppelganger. Meanwhile both leaders’ second in commands threaten to steal the show. Bad seed Koba, played by future Dr. Doom Toby Kebbel, gives Serkis a run for his money while Gary Oldman, on the surface our go-to bad guy, ends up being more of a wholly sympathetic dissenting opinion than anything.
There are a lot of good movies out there and many great ones too. Then there are films like this — outstanding achievements that strap you in for every second and leave you breathless at the end. Yes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is just that good. What Reeves and company have done with Dawn is not only make a sequel that is better than the original; they’ve made a film that is as complex and moving as any there ever was.