It’s all fine and good until an ape gets a gun. Ten years after the events of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, super simian Caesar (Andy Serkis) runs a large community of apes in the woods outside of a dilapidated San Francisco (science fiction hates San Francisco). Bar a few survivors, most of the human race has been eradicated by the virus accidentally created by history’s greatest monster, James Franco. When a group of humans from the city led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), encounter the simians, through trying to keep power running using a dam located in ape country, a brief treaty between the species is formed. As mentioned, though, things go awry when guns get involved.
It would be easy to only view Dawn of the Planet of the Apes through the lens of previous Apes films. Its direct predecessor, Rise, even had callbacks and references to the original films as one-off gags. But make no mistake, this not a remake of any portion of the previous canon. The references, intentional or otherwise, complement the new themes at work. The sight of an ape holding an assault rifle is shrewdly first played for laughs, before taking a shocking, dark turn. After several years of random, sickening acts of real gun violence in North America, Dawn taps into perhaps the last vestige of a non-cynical reaction.
To call the apes’ home a ‘community’ almost feels like selling them short. Their world feels more organized and fully realized than the humans’ walled-off and chaotic market complex, of which we only see glimpses. The apes appear to have classes, shacks, hunting parties, and we even see early ape lore being etched on rock in the background. Serkis plays leader Caesar with more vivid expression than before. It’s an incredible performance, expressing just with his eyes how ‘human’ Caesar is becoming. Serkis is ably supported by Tony Kebbell as Caesar’s second-in-command, Koba, who with the help of his WETA animators gives a pained, wounded, malicious turn.
Of the two sides of the conflict, the humans ultimately get the shortest amount of screentime, but this isn’t even an issue: it’s very much the apes’ movie to take. The best movie of the summer is primarily grunted through poorly worded half-sentences and subtitled sign language. Though more thought-provoking than a typical blockbuster, director Matt Reeves certainly doesn’t let up on action, with battle scenes as intense as any notable war film of late. Reeves has always had an eye for action, but he’s come a long way from Cloverfield.
To say that Dawn has a villain is short-sighted. As a sequel, and with the direction of the script by Mark Bomback, Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, we are of a predisposition to side with the apes. But by the film’s climax, both man and ape have made severely harsh, sometimes questionable ethical decisions. It’s not the case that man or ape is conclusively bad, as both sides start to or have always thought. Perhaps nature’s just a bitch.
— Kenny Hedges