Dawn of the Planet of the Apes review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The Planet of the Apes movies have come a long way from the campy costumes and the strange sci-fi concept of the original 1960’s film. Now, after several sequels, prequels and remakes, the Apes franchise has finally reached the pinnacle of possibilities with this dark, emotional and character driven entry. It’s as if director Matt Reeves sat down and tried to figure out how to make the best Apes movie ever made. Not only does he succeed at accomplishing just that, but he ended up making one of the best blockbusters of the year with real heart and smarts.
Taking place a decade after the events of Rise of the Planet Apes, the human race has dwindled after the dreaded airborne ape flu engulfs the earth. Our pain is the apes gain as the same virus makes them grow more intelligent and collected. The spark of this new age is the ape Caesar (voiced and motion-acted by Andy Serkis) who leads and defends his ape brethren in the forest. They hunt for food, bear children and teach their young how to read, write and speak. Not far from their establishment, the humans struggle to maintain their own camp with few resources. Their only hope for survival is to reactivate a dam deep in ape territory. A group of humans attempt to negotiate their way into the dam and repair it under the terms that they’ll get in and get out quickly. Unfortunately, there are fearful, greedy and stupid individuals on both sides of this conflict that turns everything bananas.
The human antagonist is Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a bitter leader who vows revenge for the loss of his wife and child to the ape flu. The ape antagonist is Koba, a jealous second-in-command who believes Caesar is too weak and misguided to use his power. Both of them want the same thing: a life without the other race. They represent the worst of a world that cannot get along. Caught in between this feud is an empathizing group of humans and a bitterly frustrated Caesar. They both want their own people to survive by maintaining a treaty and perhaps even forming a truce. But with so many forces of fear working against them, they seriously question if peace can ever be built between humans and apes co-existing. Of course, we know that it is ultimately the apes who will take over the planet given their current track record, but it will not be an easy victory or a painless procedure.
The biggest hurdle for a film like this were the special effects. It wasn’t so much hindering on how fantastic or exciting the action sequences appeared (though they are brilliantly depicted), but just selling the appearance of the apes themselves. There are several scenes in the films where there is not a single human being on screen as we observe the apes talk among themselves in sign language and bits of vocal phrases. And there is plenty of emotion emitted from these CGI characters to make them both believable and emotional. It gives us a reason to invest in these creatures so that when the inevitable explosions and gunfire starts up, there is a reason to care about what is going on and who might be killed.
Thanks to the motion capture acting of Andy Serkis and the animation of WETA studios, we believe these apes and never once feel off-put by their presence on screen. Caesar displays a wide range of conflicting feelings for his own race and the humans just down the road. There is fury, pain, grief, sadness, joy, concern and deep thought all present on his face and his body language. You completely buy into him as a real character and not just a special effect. This allows us to appreciate the story itself which is just as strong as these renderings if not more so.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a masterpiece of the sci-fi/action genre both from a technical and storytelling angle. If I were to tell you 20 years ago that there was real story and heart behind a film about apes taking over Earth, you’d think I was mad. And, yet, here we are in a cinema world where ideas so simple and often silly can be brilliantly conceived into real movies of character depth, intense action and technical wonder. All the pieces needed to connect so perfectly that if even one element was off it would all tumble down. The film stands strong, however, and for that it is one of the most intelligent blockbusters of the year. That’s some progress for a film franchise that once began with rubber masks and awkward mouth movements.