Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to 2011’s successful reboot, Rise, that surprised everyone by breathing new life into a long-dormant franchise, is also a sort-of prequel to the 1968 film that left Charlton Heston bawling at a statue, so the ending will not come as a surprise – we know this does not become Peaceful Planet of the Humans and Apes. Instead, the intrigue here is in exploring the moment when coexistence appeared a possibility only to be squandered by a cruel misunderstanding.
Ten winters after Rise saw a deadly simian flu unleashed across the world, in which time the planet has turned to post-apocalyptic ruin, Caesar (Serkis) has become leader of a 2,000-strong clan of apes ensconced in San Francisco’s Muir Woods while the remaining band of human survivors struggle to survive down in the city.
Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) has taken over seamlessly from Rise-director Rupert Wyatt, taking advantage of the advances in motion-capture to add an extra layer of realism to the film by taking the technology out of the studio and into dirty, real-world locations. The dank, overcast woodland setting is palpably earthy, creating a claustrophobic intensity that helps to maintain throughout the festering tension between two tribes on the brink of war.
The plot’s fulcrum revolves around the relative peace of the ape community being disrupted by human invaders, led by an understated Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, seeking to reactivate the hydroelectric dam upon which the apes have built their home. While dangerous factions on both sides advocate a pre-emptive attack, Caesar takes pity on the weakened humans, forging a fragile trust with Malcolm based on their shared desire to save their sons from the savagery of war.
The story has a great deal to say about our own war torn world. In fact, the conflict that arises between the apes and humans is caused by the lies and miscommunication that are dangerously fertile in an environment of mutual distrust – something that is poignantly allegorical of the on-going conflict in Gaza.
What allows you to so fully immerse yourself in Reeves’ simian world and empathise with the apes is the extraordinary detail in the motion capture work that takes the technology up a notch from its already impressive predecessor. The rendering of the rain-matted fur, gnarled facial features and close-ups of sorrowful simian eyes is so imperceptibly real that the actors’ performances can’t help but shine through the digital prosthetics.
This allows Caesar and his arboreal family to become the heart and soul of the film. It’s possible to recognize Andy Serkis’ features in Caesar’s expressions and the motion-capture pioneer imbues his seasoned ape with the inner-turmoil of a leader torn between helping the humans he knows are capable of kindness and showing solidarity to his comrades who have known nothing but cruelty.
Much of Dawn focuses on the dynamics of Caesar’s relationship with his volatile second-in-command Koba. Brought to life with surprising pathos by an excellent Toby Kebbell, it’s hard to harbour any hatred towards Koba, who still bares the scares of the torture he suffered at the hands of humans, even as he makes the transition from loyal follower to power-hungry challenger by betraying the ape who set him free.
Dawn is not, however, a complete upgrade on Rise, lacking the economical storytelling of its predecessor which creates an over-wrought plot weighed down by too many bloated scenes. This may be because, while Rise dealt with the challenges of politics, diplomacy, animal testing and medical research, Dawn is only concerned with themes of family and belonging. Though this singular focus leads to emotionally stirring moments, such as when Caesar comforts his mate during child birth, it is also more suited to a contemplative style that strips the film of the necessary celerity.
With an action-packed climax that somehow maintains the unsettling tension whilst delivering its fair share of emotionally wrenching moments, this tight, gritty sequel is superbly shot and affectingly performed, if slightly over-stretched. The knowledge that Reeves is set to direct the next instalment all but ensures the third part of this rebooted Planet of the Apes will truly be a sight to behold.
Runtime: 130 minutes Genre: Sci-Fi/Drama Released: 17 July 2014
Director: Matt Reeves Writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Mark Bomback
Cast: Any Serkis, Jason Clarke, Toby Kebbell, Gary Oldman
Click here to watch the trailer for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes