Nowadays, there seems to be a new standard by which many films are judged: “knowing what it is.” People love the Fast & Furious and John Wick franchises because they seem to know that the audience just wants a fun, action-packed romp. Inversely, those same audiences tear apart Michael Bay and the Transformers movies because they take themselves seriously when all anyone wanted was robots riding dinosaurs. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, really the Apes franchise over all, could have easily just been apes on horses firing machine guns. No one would have expected anything more, and it probably would have been just as entertaining. Thankfully, the Apes franchise knows exactly what it is, and it’s nothing close to a mindless summer blockbuster.
Rupert Wyatt did an unexpectedly great job at the helm with Rise, but what Matt Reeves pulls off here is nothing short of incredible. The film opens with a fantastic hunting sequence, and the first few scenes do a great job setting up the new world in which these apes are living. What I find so compelling is how little dialogue is in these first twenty minutes. Seriously, the decision to have so much of the films exposition done through sign-language of CGI primates is a bold one, and Reeves deserves some major props for committing to that decision.
Thats what makes Reeves such a great choice for this film. He handles this story and its characters with such care. Not only that, but he treats his audience with respect and an assumption of intelligence. Reeves treats Caesar and his ape kin as real characters, and he expects us too as well. It could have been so easy to paint a level of irony to these characters. Reeves could have used comedy to constantly remind us that the characters were watching aren’t human, in a way to say, “its silly, and I know that, stick with me,” but he doesn’t. In fact, he goes the exact opposite way, almost daring us to classify these apes as anything other than human. In a scene we’ll touch on later, he uses comedy to show us the apes might even be smarter than we are.
Adding to the tonal shift is the impeccable work of cinematographer Michael Seresin. Seresin had previously worked on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and whether you think its the best of the series, no one can deny its the most tonally distinct. Both Azkaban and Dawn share a dark, intense look, especially considering they’re movies about teenage wizards and talking chimpanzees. Dawn has the same visual aesthetic as movies like The Road or I Am Legend (rundown buildings, nature taking back a city, walled off sections of a metropolis). Dawn isn’t doing an imitation of a post-apocalyptic drama, it is one. This movie also has two impressive long takes (the shot of Koba and the tank is especially stunning), and uses them for a reason, not just to have a cool looking one’r people can gush about.
I talked at length about how great Andy Serkis’ Caesar was in my last review last review, and he’s better in every way for this second installment. Not only have the visual effects improved, helping the audience see more nuance and detail, but you can tell Serkis as an actor has settled into this role. Caesar is not longer just “the smart ape” he has very real character traits. You can see his personality, how he has grown since Rise, and how leadership has affected him. Going back to the near silent first 20 minutes of the film, Serkis is able to evoke emotion through only his facial expressions and physicality. That’s the mark of a seasoned veteran, and it only helps his case for an Oscar (which he absolutely deserved) that he’s doing so disguised as a member of a different species.
Also showing off some impressive acting chops is Toby Kebbell as Koba. Kebbell is no stranger to performance capture characters (going on to portray Kong in Kong Skull Island, and Durotan in Warcraft), and its easy to tell he simply approached Koba as he would any other character. In the same way Serkis was able to take Caesar from “smart chimp” to a complex, nuanced leader, Kebbell is able to take the “crazy chimp” from Rise, and transform Koba into a tourtured, victory-no-matter-what antagonist for Dawn. Koba has a terrifying intensity that not every actor could bring without coming across has two-dimensional.
Theres a scene about midway through the film where Koba has to trick some humans into letting him close enough so he can steal their guns. Not only does Reeves use our preconceived idea’s about apes against us (goofy, silly animals), but while Koba is playing the fool to gain the humans trust, one can’t help but cringe knowing it won’t end well. This scene works because, ape or not, we know Koba is vicious. We’re not afraid of the animal, were afraid of the demon inside. On top of that fear, Kebbell shows such a clear character arc that we understand why we fear him, and that makes Koba a genuinely great antagonist.
Also making a massive leap in quality from Rise, are the humans. What were comical, one sided villains and, well, James Franco doing whatever James Franco does, have been replaced by developed, relatable characters. Jason Clarke plays Malcolm, a man trying to do what’s best for his family and the greater colony they belong too. Malcom and Caesar connect over their shared leadership status, and Clarke masterfully expresses the tension he feels working with this new species, while trying to take care of his own. Gary Oldman also shines as the more militant human patriarch, Dreyfus. What could have been a flat, “apes bad people good,” villain, Oldman is able to breathe so much life, emotion, and intensity into.
This is again a testament to Reeves’ direction. You understand every character, and what motivates them to make the choices they do. Dreyfus lost his family and is now working to prevent that from happening to anyone else, Caesar is the leader of a brand new species, trying to find their place in the world, Koba is motivated by his hatred of humans based on his past, and Malcolm is trying to find peace wherever he can. This movie is carried by its characters, and Reeves and all the actors involved do a wonderful job making me believe them, primate or not.
Its hard to think of any real negatives for this movie. The plot meanders a bit, but that also helps make the world feel more realistic and lived in. This film blew me away in almost every aspect. It elevates everything from the first one and takes its characters and story seriously without an ounce of irony or cynicism. Honestly, this is the movie that helped change the narrative from a reboot done right, to being in the conversation for one of the great trilogies of all time.
Rating: 4.75 – Phenomenal