A rising society of primates struggles against not only the last remnants of mankind, but also disorder within their own ranks in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a continuation and expansion of the franchise mythos that ranks among the series’ best films.
2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes wasn’t entirely effective – it was cheesy, at times, with an ending that felt rushed – but it was surprisingly intelligent and thoughtful for a summer blockbuster. Producers were rewarded with a box office total that far exceeded expectations, leading to this direct sequel, set a decade after the events in the original.
Rise told the story of chimpanzee Caesar, who is given an experimental Alzheimer’s drug and becomes super-smart. If you’ve seen the original 1968 classic, you know where things are (eventually) headed from here; still, Rise managed to tell an origin story unlike anything previous films in the series had described, though it included some elements of 1972’s Conquest for the Planet of the Apes.
Ten years after the events of the 2011 film, humanity is decimated and a primitive ape civilization is thriving in the Muir Woods outside of the remains of San Francisco. Caesar now leads this monkey society, which includes ‘wife’ Cornelia, son Blue Eyes, and second-in-command Koba and orangutan Maurice, both of whom are returning from the previous film.
At the outset of Dawn, we see how this ape society has evolved, crafting massive wooden structures through the trees to form something of an Ape City. Maurice teaches the young the sign language they use to communicate (though Caesar can speak and the others seem to be slowly learning too) and a moral code that includes one commandment: ape shall not kill ape. Their evolution is impressive, but through side plots involving Koba and Blue Eyes, we get the sense that all is not right throughout the monkey ranks.
Caesar is played, once again, by Andy Serkis in a motion capture performance that is front-and-center throughout the film. Serkis has also played Gollum and King Kong, but Caesar may be his finest accomplishment yet: it’s a surprisingly restrained, heartfelt turn that tests just how far audiences are willing to identify with a non-human character.
Like the previous film, talk is already swarming about a possible Oscar nomination for Serkis, which would be a first for a motion-capture performance. I’m not sure if enough Academy members will consider his work here to be by-the-books ‘acting’, but I do know that Caesar is one of the most memorable screen characters of the year.
Serkis’ work here is also a lot more intensive than most other acting gigs, though it’s hard to say how much the creative team behind Caesar is responsible for the ‘performance’ (certainly, they should be recognized right alongside Serkis).
Dawn also features solid support from other motion capture actors, including Toby Kebbell (as Koba), Judy Greer (Cornelia), Nick Thurston (Blue Eyes), and Karin Konoval, who plays Maurice and is the only actor besides Serkis to return for the sequel. Much of Dawn is scenes of the apes without any humans in sight, and yet the events are completely engaging regardless.
Of course, the humans do show up: a faction of survivors in San Francisco, cut off from the rest of the world, send a group into the Muir Woods to attempt to restart a water-powered generator and re-introduce electricity to the city.
They include the well-intentioned Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Ellie (Keri Russell), and the trigger-happy Carver (Kirk Acevado). Back in town, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) tries to keep the peace when word of the super-intelligent apes breaks. I liked the parallel drawn between the two societies, a species apart, who nevertheless face similar internal conflicts.
Next to the apes, the human characters don’t have much of a chance to shine. But I appreciated the mannered performances by Clarke, as Caesar’s human counterpoint, and Oldman, whose character could have been portrayed as a typical villain but instead gets a couple of scenes to bring a sincere rationale to his actions.
Dawn was directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), who brings a sense of immediacy to the proceedings while expanding upon the finale of the previous film. This movie didn’t go where I expected it to; like the previous film, it’s content to tell a single, intimate story without reaching for too much. This feature-length extrapolation of the final act of Rise both enhances that film and leaves us wanting more, and it’s an engrossing Apes entry in its own right.