Saturday, July 12, 2014

Review: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

Director: Matt Reeves
Runtime: 130 Minutes

The bar set by 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes wasn't terribly high. Despite a few standout sequences (and one jaw-dropping moment), Rise suffered from lackluster human characters that dragged down the more compelling ape-oriented scenes. So to say that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a superior sequel isn't a guarantee of greatness. But Dawn isn't just any other sequel. Though the humans still pale in comparison to the apes this time around, Dawn bests its predecessor in every conceivable way. This is a smart, full-bodied sequel that delivers its blockbuster moments only once they've been earned by the plot. 

Set roughly a decade after Rise, Dawn finds the advanced apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), making a life for themselves up in the Muir Woods. When we first see Caesar and company, it's been two years since they've had any contact with humans. At one point, Caesar and others ponder if there are even any humans left in the overrun remains of San Francisco. Yet, soon enough, a band of humans stumbles along into ape territory, threatening to reignite man/ape conflicts. 

These humans are led by Malcolm (Zero Dark Thirty's Jason Clarke), who is on a mission to restart a dormant dam in ape territory that could give some power back to the human colony hiding in San Francisco. After a rocky start, humans and apes form a temporary alliance of sorts to assist Malcolm and his team with their plan. Of course, not everyone is happy about this cross species effort. Among the apes, the fearsome Koba (Toby Kebbell) feels that Caesar is too trusting of humans. Meanwhile, human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is more than ready to simply gun the apes down if it means getting to the dam faster.

Both sides have peaceful and bloodthirsty factions. Yet rather than simplify motivations, Dawn gives its various points of view some airing time before eventually picking a side. Dreyfus is still haunted by the loss of his wife and children after the outbreak of the Simian Flu (a man-made virus that got to the public at the end of Rise). Koba, meanwhile, is wary of humans after years of painful experiments performed in secret laboratories. 

In giving the humans and the apes diverse angles, Dawn achieves a bit of nuance not often found in big budget summer fare. However, that's hardly surprising when one considers the franchise's history. The original Planet of the Apes was rife with socio-political allegory, and this latest installment is more than up to the task of continuing the tradition. 

Director Matt Reeves, who rose to fame with the found footage sci-fi/disaster flick Cloverfield, deserves quite a bit of credit for the success here. Moving effortlessly from gimmicky techniques to more classical blockbuster filmmaking, the director brings a much more assured hand to this bigger, richer sequel. Reeves understands how to shoot even the mundane visual effects shots so as to maximize impact. And when it comes to the action, he proves himself more than up to the task of capturing the carnage with clarity. Without even making a huge deal of it, Reeves throws in a superb tracking shot that follows Malcolm running through a series of hallways as machine gun-toting apes tear through the surrounding rooms. 

And even though the human characters remain secondary to the apes, Dawn represents an obvious step in the right direction. Clarke, Keri Russell, and Kodi Smit-McPhee have the most screen time, with each getting at least one significant moment that strengths some aspect of the human/ape dynamic. 

The star, however, is still Mr. Serkis. Though Caesar has no singular 'wow' moment like he did in Rise, Serkis' motion-capture work is as commanding as ever. The truly astounding visual effects work beautifully gives detail to the physically demanding ape performances. Toby Kebbell is quite terrifying as the human-hating Koba, and Karin Konoval provides a lovely simian supporting turn as a wise orangutan with a penchant for reading.

The film's success on an emotional and visual front is so impressive that it mostly overshadows the occasional flaws in the script. Some of the human dialogue can be a bit stiff, and a few plot developments happen a bit too suddenly, yet overall Reeves' command of the story holds the entire thing together quite brilliantly. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an ideal summer sequel. It's story is bigger and its stakes are higher, yet it also registers more deeply on an emotional level due to the care taken with the plot and (most of) the characters. 

Grade: B+

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