Much like its predecessor it’s hard to not foresee the outcome of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — even before the film begins. So why does this film (and its predecessor) keep us engaged? Dystopian stories are always a thing of interest in our culture; what happens when something cataclysmic renders life on Earth incapable of running like a tight ship. The apes obviously prevail both times out but the possibility of peace is something we all strive for in life, however, films with gun toting apes ultimately will never see that possibility come to fruition. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes succeeds in keeping that lack of chance interesting with a fast paced, action-packed thrill ride that is just as good if not better than the series first outing.
We begin with a montage opening that navigates the escalation of the simian flu across the world whose population has now been reduced greatly. Life has settled in this post simian flu world but it is not easy; the ape and human war is ten years in the past and both societies have settled on opposite sides of the Golden Gate Bridge. The humans, led by Gary Oldman’s scenery-chewing Dreyfus, are in need of power to survive and the only place to get this is a dam deep within the Muir Woods where Caesar and his tribe of Apes reside. Dreyfus dispatches doe-eyed ape sympathizer Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and a band of humans including Malcolm’s partner (played by Keri Russell) to reason with Caesar otherwise the humans will take the apes by storm.
Caesar’s camp is at peace with the once rebellious leader now a family man and a sympathizer of the human’s desperation to survive. His only opposition is Koba, a chimpanzee we first met in Rise who has strong disdain for humans having been tortured and experimented on by them. This where the obvious rise in conflict occurs that will lead to both societies descending into all-out war. As I said before, you know where this is all heading but much of why Dawn works for the most part so well is in the motion capture performances of the ape actors. Andy Serkis once again dons the CGI image of Caesar and takes the motion captures ability even further than before. There is even more texture to Caesar’s demeanor which has gone from freed rebel to a somber and intellectual leader. The humans ultimately hurt themselves more than the apes did and for an ape far more sympathetic with the human race his conflicting feelings of distrust and sympathy make all of Caesars actions and thoughts the more difficult for the rest of his people to believe him a fit ruler.
Having much more interaction between apes this time out allows the tension to shift greatly from ape to human to ape to ape conflict. This is where, much like Rise, the film begins to share similar themes and plot points with the final film in the original Apes series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes as we see Koba acting as the opposite to Caesar’s human-loving nature. Koba wants war and remembers how he was treated; he calculates on a level that breaks the bond between the apes showing to Caesar that they are not much different from humans in the aspect of their abilities to not trust their own kind.
Since much of the ape interaction is done through sign language and the occasional broken bits of dialogue director Matt Reeves relies greatly on setting and tone to really tell the story. He has a keen eye for a dystopian future and the visual elements of a deserted San Francisco reduced to a shanty town looks brilliant on a big screen. Reeves’ work in the past has often emphasized atmosphere more than story work but here it’s a necessity. So many moments in Dawn are intense enough to stick in your head for days. The escalating level of violence really makes the notion of a brutal conflict the more frightening. Close and often claustrophobic battles with flames and gun fire blasting out of nowhere make for some very intense sequences. While I doubt the viewer will ever have to bear witness to an ape on horseback toting a gun in the air down a busy street it’s still chilling to watch.
Many people will try to find hidden meaning to the various political undertones of the film but this feels like bare bones warfare and survival at best. If anything, emphasis on the power of the gun might be the only overt theme to make its way front and center to the film. Caesar has a strict policy in his tribe about guns and the mere presence brings back all the mistrust in humans back to the surface. Whoever possesses the power of the gun possesses power over his enemy and when Koba picks up a gun early on and murders two humans the time for negotiation is over. On a social level both Caesar and Malcolm possess the same ideals for their kind; prosperity and trust but they can’t convey this to their own people. It’s generic war and peace fiction but the way Dawn floats between unsettling violence and moments of civility makes the hope that something will work out in the end the more inspiring and tragic.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is probably the bleakest thing you will see this year but its ability to straddle the line between dystopian themes and human morals makes it a rollicking and at times uplifting piece of action and science fiction that fits right in with the big bangs of the summer blockbuster season.
Jason Stives is the resident Anglophile and Pop-Break representative for BBC America conducting weekly reviews of Doctor Who and Orphan Black. He is currently a contributing writer for PropertyofZack.com and a freelance creative consultant for fundraising and marketing campaigns in New Jersey’s various art communities. He is a graduate of Rutgers University’s class of 2010 with a bachelors in Journalism and Media Studies. When he isn’t attending concerts or writing the great American novel he moonlights as lounge crooner J.M Heavyhart turning the works of Dokken and Dio into Sinatra-esque standards (or at least he would like to be). Follow his constant retweets and occasionally witty banter on Twitter at @jaystives