Too many times, that overused phrase “It made me feel like a kid again” has stood as a defense for liking sub-par movies. But with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a truly magical work that had me giddy, mouth agape in sheer wonder (like a big-mouth bass caught hook, line and sinker) I will happily cloak myself in that tired sentiment. Dawn of the Apes made me feel like a kid again, and it was amazing.
From the very first opening sequence that gently reminds us of the outcome of the first film, director Matt Reeves shows a delicate patience and proclivity for understatement that will go on to define his picture as a whole. A collection of news clips detailing the global calamity that has been termed “Simian Flu” fill in the outline of countries and continents as a spiderweb of the virus’ migration connects the world as if in an Indiana Jones flyover sequence. A solitary piano note rings out as the lights of Earth are slowly extinguished, blip by blip, until darkness reigns. The title card creeps from the inky black with a brown note fanfare: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Chills race up my spine.
From here, Reeves takes us into the world of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his super-simians. These uber-intelligent apes are New Age noble savage; they live harmoniously with the land, hunt in packs, have a cool, Endor-like treetop village and don’t need the extraneous comforts that humans rely so heavily upon, likes beds and fast food and cars and electricity.
Since the events of Rise, Caesar and his Hominidae cohorts have established their own utopia where apes don’t kill apes and a dwindling human population poses little threat to their way of life. Like the phoenix from the ashes, they rule in peace in their hard-won isolation. That is until a band of human travelers wander into the outskirts of their village and happen upon two young apes – one of whom is Caesar’s son, Bright Eyes (a name you may recall from Rise as that of Caesar’s deceased not-quite-super-ape momma). Fearful and jittery, Carver (Kirt Acevedo) plugs a bullet into one, inviting the entire troop of PO’ed apes to come swinging into defense. Our homo-sapien protagonist Malcolm (Jason Clarke) steps up to decry the incident as accidental but when Caesar barks “Go!”, the ragtag band of human survivors realize a. they’ve opened a whole box of Pandora’s boxes and b. holy shit, apes talk now.
This chance encounter leads to rabbling discussions on both sides. Gary Oldman‘s Dreyfus, who seems the de-facto leader of this scrambled human brigade, lays into Malcolm on why they must return to the ape enclosure in hopes of accessing a downed electrical dam. But Malcolm’s already on the same page as him. You see, when the lights went out years back, unspeakable things happened in the darkness. Things he won’t allow his new family to revisit.
Back in the ape world, Caesar is pressured by milky-eyed confidante Koba (Toby Kebbell) into a show of force. They’ve crossed a line in the sand and must be put in their place, Koba roughly signs out in ape sign language. Though weakened, humans possess the power to destroy all that we’ve built and must be put in their place. As the Ape leader with a royal name and his (si)minions march in on horseback, the humans of this blown-out San Fran are as dumbfounded and outraged as Charlton Heston at a Gun Control meet-and-greet. Again, holy shit.
The remainder of Reeve’s film is history. Cowboys and Indians, The Civil Rights Movement (with strong analogies to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King), Manifest Destiny, WWI and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. War; what is it good for? Asserting yourself as the dominant species.
As Reeve’s film leaks historical allegories like a zesty geyser, his political astuteness pans to a smart dissection of why we choose war in the first place. War is a side effect of fear, fear a scar of misunderstanding. Koba’s are scars that cannot be healed. Dreyfus won’t stand for Three-Fifths of a vote. Peace is a process. Wars start inevitably. It’s not that these two civilizations could not peace co-habitate, it’s that sometimes a punch in the face seems like a more swift resolution than drawn-out talks. History however says otherwise (look no further than the 11 year War in Iraq for proof of that). Peace isn’t easy but it sure saves on carnage.
That said, boy oh boy does the carnage look good here. Though much of the beginning of the film is occupied by a sense of quiet contemplation and even quieter sign-talking – a bold stance in a blockbuster in and of itself – when things do get heated, the conflagrations rise quickly. A mid-stage set piece involving Koba (who could easily go down as the best villain of 2014) is so masterfully rendered, so perfectly shot, and so breathtakingly epic that I had to collect my jaw from the floor after watching it. And this is where the effects wizards over at WETA, whose anthropomorphic achievements are simply unmatched, should take a bow.
And when I say wizards, I don’t mean it lightly. Dawn is not the work of some pea-brained Hogwarts first years so much as a cloned army of Dumbledores, who’ve worked tirelessly to make CGI characters so picture perfect that sometimes you have to pinch yourself to remember that these are not actual talking apes onscreen. Maurice the orangutan in particular is the product of effects on the edge of tomorrow (in addition to being a joy to watch.) The hairs on his body alone boggle the line of what is and isn’t real. While Rise proved that these visual acrobatics were possible, Dawn takes them to the next level, plants them on horses and charges them over flaming barricades while pumping off automatic rifles in both hands. Epic is the only adjective that fits.
Beneath that FX artistry, Serkis shines as much as ever. His Caesar is more confident, more defined in his role as a leader, and all around more stoney than before. But it’s this resolve that makes his oncoming break so much more potent. Assuming the Academy won’t be budging on their ancient rulings anytime in the near future, it’s still worth taking time to note just how much of an avant-garde artist this man is. Props.
But it’s not Serkis alone this time round who furthers the medium of motion capture. Toby Kebbell as Koba is the teeth-baring, power-seeking, fear-totting equivalent of Lion King‘s Scar in that his devious maneuvering are matched only by the penchant for fire-filled battles. A scene when he switches from playful circus monkey to dead-eyed killer ape lets the chills fly fast and loose, reminding us this is not an ape to be f**ked with and that Serkis has taught his co-stars in the art of mo-cap well.
Although the human side doesn’t really have an equal to Dawn‘s simian counterpart, Clarke is a strong lead; wide-eyed, charismatic and caring, even without much of an arc of speak of. At one junction, Caesar calls him a good man and that about sums up his characterization. Malcolm’s small familial unit, including son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and whatever they call a girlfriend after the pretty-much Apocalypse, Ellie (Keri Russell), get even less fleshing out, but still provide just enough to give Clarke’s Malcolm the needed stakes to take big risks. If anything, they’re ample window dressings to move the larger story forward.
For the first time this year, I cannot wait to rush back to the theater and shell out all the money to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on an even bigger screen. Because this is the definitive movie that demands an IMAX screening, even if it does mean wearing those obnoxious 3D glasses. Not only is Dawn the best Apes movie since the 1968 original, it’s one of the finest sci-fi movies to grace the silver screen in decades.
It’s that impossibly rare blockbuster that shimmers with intelligence and has the FX razzle-dazzle to leave you dazed and amused, grinning from ear-to-ear and stunned by it’s impeccably told story. If we’re lucky, we’ll see a follow up tagging close behind (hopefully with Reeves returning) and I’m willing to wager a pretty penny they call it War for the Planet of the Apes. But no need to look too far into the future, just start lining up for this one right about… now.