The most surprising thing about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that Andy Serkis’s incredible motion-captured performance is only the third best thing about the Matt Reeves film.
Surprising because Serkis’s Caesar, an ape born of a chimp who received experimental Alzheimer’s medication, was the centrepiece of the 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which successfully rebooted the series to critical and commercial success (a $481 million worldwide box-office haul in its run) and made Dawn inevitable.
The visual effects are king in Dawn. Really, without them, Serkis’s performance – and actors Toby Kebbell, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval and Judy Greer, whose work as apes was also motion-captured – would be inconceivable. The explosions, CG set pieces and the many scenes of destruction (that fire…) were all breathtaking. Then there’s the score by Michael Giacchino, an Oscar winner for Pixar’s Up score, that is so beautiful, exciting, stirring and at times haunting, it is the ultimate mood setter for the dark Dawn. It pulls you in from the opening credits and never lets go.
This eighth film in the Apes franchise (the first, starring Charlton Heston, was released in 1968 and is available on Netflix Canada) takes place 10 years after the events of Rise. The simian flu has wiped out much of the world’s human population. In Dawn, we follow a group of humans who’ve survived around San Francisco. They’ve never ventured outside the city, but they’re running out of fuel and the abandoned dam in the nearby forest may be their saving grace. The humans and apes are both hero and villain, and you sympathize with both groups.
The film stars some humans in their human forms – Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee – though they’re not nearly as developed emotionally as the apes are. They’re not so underdeveloped that the mere sight of them illicit scoffs, but the apes are definitely missed when they’re not on screen. In the scenes in which apes and humans share the screen, your eye is drawn towards the apes. That the ape-only scenes focus on simian families is never odd, or strange, or weird. It’s sci-fi, after all, but Reeves sells it and you buy it in heaps.
Clarke, Russell and Smit-McPhee make up a group that goes into the forest to see if the dam is salvageable when the come across apes – but these aren’t just any apes, and they know it. Leader Caesar screams at them, telling them to leave and never come back. But his peers don’t think the threat went far enough, so Caesar is convinced to pay the humans a visit in the city. Again, the CG and live-action combination looks seamless. It all looks so real, and damn good.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a sequel that builds and improves upon its predecessor, but is also an excellent standalone film. With an almost doubled budget and an extra 25 minutes in runtime, Dawn doesn’t miss a beat. It’s smart and exciting, it wows and then some. It’s the best movie of the summer, and unlikely to be dethroned.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)