It’s been three long years since the franchise re-booting Rise of the Planet of the Apes astonished sci-fi fans with a masterful new take on the classic franchise. In the first of a new prequel series, we were introduced to Caesar, a brilliant chimpanzee born of a lab-rat mother and spirited away by a kind-hearted scientist to be raised as his “child”. Rise concluded with an epic confrontation between hundreds of escaped simians, all with heightened intelligence following exposure to an experimental Alzheimer’s drug, warring with humans on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco before escaping into the dense woods north of the city.
Following a brief prologue covering all that has occurred between Rise and Dawn in which we discover that the virus has now gone global and wiped out much of humanity, we jump ahead ten years to a world where the enhanced simians have created their own peaceful, utopian society deep in the lush forests of Northern California, thinking themselves alone in a world free of humanity.
Caesar is their highly regarded leader, the hero who saved them all from the cages the humans kept them in. The decade free of humanity has been one of peace and Caesar has a family of his own, but his mind has never fully turned from the world of men, especially the human “father” he lost long ago, played winningly in Rise by James Franco.
Of course, there’d be no film if there weren’t still human factions out in this ravaged post-apocalyptic world. While attempting to find and restart a generator at a dam near the apes’ sanctuary, the human and ape worlds come crashing once more into each other’s radius. Caesar, while wary of the humans, feels compelled to help them find a way to survive and thrive, creating a conflict with members of his own community who distrust anything having to do with the species that once kept them in cages and used them for experiments.
Caesar’s main opponent here is Koba, the bonobo he saved in Rise, still deeply scarred both physically and emotionally, now played by The East’s Toby Kebbell. While Koba is deeply indebted to Caesar, he can’t shake his hatred for the world of man. And Caesar, despite his hesitation, feels drawn to the small group of humans set on bringing power back to their world. Led by a family man named Malcolm (played by Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke), his wife Ellie (Dark Skies’ Keri Russell) and a hot-headed ape-hater named Carver (Fringe’s Kirk Acevedo), who is just set to screw everything up at some point, the humans intend to bring some semblance of the old world back to their commune in the remains of San Francisco.
Prompted by their leader, Dreyfus, a shell of a man who lost his family and his faith in the world in the years after the apes rise, and played by Gary Oldman with his usual blend of intensity and emotional heft, the small band of humans build a tenuous relationship with the apes. But war is never far away, and any fan of the original sci-fi classics from the sixties and seventies knows that soon the human and ape worlds will be at each others’ throats and whatever remains of the human world will be subjugated. The tinder is all around them, and all it needs is the spark.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the second chapter in a prequel series showing what came before the apes take over the world as witnessed by Charlton Heston in 1968, as inspired by Pierre Boulle‘s 1963 novel La Planète des Singes. 2011’s exceptional Rise of the Planet of the Apes blind-sided all with how expertly told and at times moving its view of the time before was when committed to film, and Dawn more than continues this tradition. Even without the emotional component of James Franco’s bond with Caesar, caught up in moments of profound sadness over the world lost, and the people and relationships eradicated as a result there are incredibly moving aspects of Rise that it’s difficult to be completely prepared for. Caesar’s bond with his community of simians is beautifully conveyed, watching over them with eyes full of wisdom and weariness.
It goes without saying that none of this could have been possible without the invaluable contributions of Andy Serkis. A veritable master of the art of motion capture technology and performance, Serkis continues to grow as a star with his incredible face transforming each performance into a master class in emotive acting. Every time one of Serkis’ mo-cap performances appears on screen there is a national call for rewarding him through awards recognition, and this time should be no different.
While the film is incredible to watch, expertly guided as it is by new director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), without Serkis’ in Caesar’s role, there would be no film. His highly expressive eyes, his wonderful face, sell every moment he is onscreen. The emotion he’s able to put into the slightest glance or movement is astonishing to behold; I found tears in the corners of my eyes several times during the movie’s two hour and ten minute run time. Kudos also go out to excellent performances given by Kebbell, Karin Konaval (Mrs Peacock in the notorious episode Home on The X Files) as the gentle and wise orangutan Maurice and Nick Thurston as Caesar’s son Blue Eyes: they are stars to watch in the future.
Reeves has created a beautiful, grey-washed film, the rain soaked, chilly locations practically radiating off the screen. With ample evidence that he had the talent and the vision to make this sequel soar, there should have been no concerns when it was announced that Reeves would be assuming the mantle of director from Rise‘s excellent Rupert Wyatt, and he doesn’t disappoint. There is so much to see here and the effect is truly amazing, how real everything feels and looks, making it easy to forgot that what is onscreen is pixels and data made to look like apes.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the rare sequel that surpasses the original, giving an exceptional viewing experience to the audience. It’s really difficult not to unleash a never ending stream of superlatives to describe the movie, and to encourage viewers to seek it out. The temptation is there, but I’ll leave it at this: any fan of Rise, and anyone curious about what all this fuss is, should do themselves a favour and experience it first hand. Dawn is a rarity in genre programming these days: a smart, fast paced, thought-provoking sci-fi epic that stays with the viewer long after the end credits roll.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is on general release in the UK from 17th July