Lean and dark, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes somehow never forgets to have fun. Sure, there are heavy-handed moments about war, racism, and tolerance, but those have been hallmarks of the franchise ever since Charlton Heston cursed a damn dirty ape from inside a net. The script does not dawdle, the character motivations are clear, and director Matt Reeves can shoot the hell out of an action sequence. He has the patience to lay out post-apocalyptic geography, so there’s a mix of suspense and horror during the inevitable battle scene. Everyone is in top form, both in front and behind the camera, which makes me wonder why more blockbusters are not this competently-made.
A menacing prologue serves as an audience refresher, although it’s not necessary to have seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes. After the events of the 2011 film, a worldwide flu pandemic wiped out most of humanity. Reeves then establishes a new ape civilization, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis). They’re hunters, mostly, and they’re also capable of rudimentary oral and written communication (the apes rely on sign language for nuance). A handful of humans accidentally run afoul of apes, and the encounter leaves Malcolm (Jason Clarke) as their de-facto ambassador. The journey into ape territory has its purpose: humans are looking for a new power source since they’re low on fuel, and a nearby dam might help. Caesar allows Malcolm and the others to work on the dam, which angers the ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) since torture has left him with a deep mistrust of humankind. While Caesar and Malcolm attempt to rebuild human/ape relations, Koba and the human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) are quick to advance an all-out war.
While the production design is terrific, including a husk of San Francisco that’s somehow serene and creepy, Reeves and his screenwriters do not focus on the specifics of the two camps. Instead, they draw from classic archetypes to tell a compelling anti-war story. Koba and Dreyfus are the zealots – they’re more alike then either would ever admit – while Malcolm and Caesar have the blessing of curiosity. When humans and apes return to their homes, the screenplay lets the characters debate the merits of peace and war. Reeves avoids the temptation of making the stories too parallel, which would come off as hokey; instead, the simple, smart dialogue lets the audience see the ape/human similarities before the characters do. The plot twists are not ground-breaking (Reeves must know that), so instead he strives for a sense of doomed inevitability. It’s a shrewd choice, one that adds to the film’s credibility.
Just as Planet of the Apes was a triumph of make-up and costume design, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a triumph of motion-capture CGI work. While the character design makes it easy to tell apart the important apes (e.g. Caesar’s son has a nasty scar on his shoulder), the faces in particular show the full spectrum of emotion. Avatar may have been at the forefront of the technology, but those motion-capture aliens benefit from broad faces and large eyes. The apes, on the other hand, mix realism with nuance to the point that they’re seamless in their environment. In a way, it’s a thankless task for the actors and the special effects team since the whole point is for everything to look natural. Even during a climatic action sequence, one where hundreds of apes fill the frame, each individual creature moves with grace and heft.
Reeves peppers the film with violence, including two brutal murders, so there are heightened expectations when humankind and apekind clash. Reeves’ direction does not call attention to itself: his camera sees the horror of battle, without much of its glory. And since the battle happens at night, the explosions and fire are awesome in the classic definition of the word. There are only two shots in which Reeves shows off his talent, yet they have a purpose: there are long, uninterrupted takes where Koba sits atop a tank that’s out of control, and another where Malcolm eludes danger through a labyrinth of hallways. Like the pandemic and the build-up towards war, neither human nor ape can control the ever-escalating conflict.
For a film that’s also about the potential for tolerance, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is relentlessly bleak. It offers no answers or hope, so a modicum of knowledge is the only solace given toward the characters with curiosity. By the time Malcolm mutters, “I thought we had a chance,” the hope in his voice is naive and nearly pathetic (Clarke remains an underrated actor, as he’s always the highlight of every movie he’s in). There are countless films about worldwide calamities, and more often than not they end on a positive note. Even Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is full of death and decay, sees a path toward salvation. The best thing about the Ape films is how they look into the abyss and see no answer. That takes courage. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continues in that same tradition, finding great entertainment in unremitting despair.