Matt Reeves offers up the best summer blockbuster of 2014 with 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes', an emotionally profound and beautifully balanced film.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Directed by Matt Reeves
In 2011, the thought of rebooting Planet of the Apes seemed foolish. Then Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out, and blew audiences away. As a result, expectations were high for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the follow up to 2011’s successful venture. The results are remarkable, as Dawn offers not only a brilliant summer blockbuster, but also an emotionally powerful testimony to the nature of war and humility.
Picking up where Rise ended, we’re shown an elaborate graphic of the world as it succumbs to the spread of what comes to be known as Simian Flu. Cities are infected, chaos spreads, and millions die as the infection takes hold.
Living in the wreckage of civilization, a group of a few hundred humans huddle together in the remnants of San Francisco, unaware they may be the last humans on earth. They are lead by two good men of differing ideologies: Malcolm (Jason Clarke), and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Fueled by a desire to find peace, Malcolm sees no reason why harmony can’t exist between apes and humans. Dreyfus, on the other hand, fearful of revisiting the devastation they’ve just survived, is protective to a fault.
While attempting to access a hydroelectric dam in Muir Woods, Malcolm and his small group happen upon Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe. This dam is on ape land, and the humans have no right to be there. Fear and misunderstanding sparks tensions between the two groups, creating a frustrating dynamic: neither group knows how to trust the other, and very few are willing to try and learn. Caesar, perhaps with more love for humans than the rest of his family, sees cooperation as the best road to peace. But the fear of the humans, and the envy and rage of the apes – many of whom were subjected to horrible tests before this new world began – leads to a cataclysmic collision that sets war into motion.
Dawn manages to transcend the oversimplified action that’s become commonplace for summer blockbusters. Rather than black and white conflict, Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) has given us a plethora of grey matter that has us seeing the inherent value and detriment on either side. Ultimately, it’s “human error” that leads to the inevitable conflict: fear and misunderstanding cause those prone to hate to lash out, throwing entire civilizations into flux.
The action sequences are captivating, but short, and with good reason. Ultimately, we want to see the violence end. There’s a tranquil pleasure in the apes’ peaceful existence, and the last thing we want is to watch that torn apart. They band together to hunt, they teach their young, and live harmoniously. In many ways, they present us with the way we all want to live.
Enter the humans, living among the wreckage of a former existence they’re unwilling to relinquish. As if they’re clinging to their former lives, they live in the ruins of San Francisco, dependent on the man-made sources of energy and entertainment they fell victim to years earlier. Unlike the apes, humans can no longer find another option: they behave as if they must put things back the way they were, or else life will cease to have meaning.
The performances are excellent throughout. Jason Clarke as the peaceful Malcolm presents us with the present-day, and better acted, version of James Franco’s character in Rise: a level-headed, open-minded man of peace, who sees no reason why we can’t all just get along. He offers emotional profundity and a great depth of understanding desperately lacking from the human side of things now that the shit has hit the fan.
Keri Russell as former CDC employee Ellie, is excellent. Her chemistry with Clarke is spot on, as is her tension with Malcolm’s withdrawn son, Alexander, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. Gary Oldman as the reactionary Dreyfus is a complex performance given not enough screen time. It’s strange to see Oldman in a tertiary role, and even stranger still to see him so on point yet so overshadowed.
In regards to the motion capture, it’s exquisite. Andy Serkis single-handedly justifies the need for a mo-cap category at the Academy Awards, or at least the inclusion of mo-cap performances in the standard categories. As Caesar, he establishes a level of emotional profundity none of his human counterparts can produce. Caesar’s is by far the most developed character of the film, and the most brilliantly executed performance of the lot. Here, Serkis helps clarify the point of motion capture: it most certainly does not replace actors, but rather facilitates the realization of otherwise impossible performances. Like prosthetics or makeup effects, mo-cap simply extends the reach of the actor to better realize more unattainable roles. The expressions and body language are still Serkis’s. At the end of the day, the emotion he conveys is outstanding, and his performance alone is enough to merit seeing Dawn in theatres.
The inclusion of 3D feels ultimately pointless, as most 3D is these days. Do yourself a favor, and skip the extra fees. The action sequences are in no way dependent on the extra dimension, and you’ll lose nothing by skipping it.
Easily the best summer blockbuster of 2014, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is unmissable. Perfectly paced, it offers all of the excitement and energy expected of a major blockbuster, while presenting emotionally resonant and intellectually profound content.
— Ariel Fisher