With “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, director Matt Reeves has accomplished something remarkable: he’s made a compelling action hero out of a computer generated chimpanzee.
If that’s not enough, he’s also made the summer’s best blockbuster thus far. The film opens a decade after the events in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, which left off with a group of highly evolved apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) seeking refuge in the Muir National Forest outside San Francisco.
Where “Rise” was burdened with set-up for this reboot/prequel franchise, “Dawn” completely cashes in without succumbing to the terminal dumbness we often see during the summer movie season. This is the cure for the common Michael Bay movie.
From the opening moments, in which Caesar leads upwards of fifty apes on a deer hunt that ends in a confrontation with a grizzly bear, it’s stunningly evident that we’ve reached a new level of visual artistry and technical wizardry in cinema (I’m not exactly up-to-date on all the tech lingo, but whatever the folks at Weta Digital are doing, it’s nothing short of magical).
Unlike most of these CGI-heavy summer movies, there are stunning emotional performances behind the technology. Andy Serkis, reprising his role from the last film as the super-chimp Caesar, once again deserves an Oscar. As before, it’s not all about the action sequences so vividly brought to life by the motion capture suits, but also about facial expressions conveying things like love, pain and anger with unprecedented realism.
That’s not to discount the human characters (though ironically, these Homo sapiens often seem less “human” than their primate counterparts). Jason Clarke (“White House Down”) plays Malcolm, the leader of a group of people searching for an alternative source of energy for the city. Survivors of the ALZ-113 virus, also known as the simian flu that has killed off most of the population, reside in an old factory not far away.
They only have a couple weeks worth of fuel left, and without fuel, no more power. Alas, the only viable resource is a defunct dam that is smack-dab in the middle of ape territory, and Caesar and company are none too thrilled about the human presence in their wooded sanctuary.
Matt Reeves, who directed 2010’s “Let Me In”, and is already slated for the next “Planet of the Apes” installment, doesn’t waste a single frame of this beautifully rendered sci-fi/action epic, which combines incredibly elaborate setpieces, brilliantly delineated characters and action sequences that are so massive in scope that they’re in a category all their own.
Somehow, though, the effects don’t overshadow the intelligent script by Mark Bomback, Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, who don’t use the obvious social allegory as too much of a thematic crutch while asking us to consider who the bigger threat is –- the humans or the apes.
And it is, indeed, tough to figure out with whom to side in the film. Clarke’s character, by every sense of the word a good man, reaches an agreement with Caesar, who’s developed quite a vocabulary over the last ten years, in order to get the dam up and running. But a few ne’er do wells on either side of the evolutionary tracks stir up trouble: the childish, over-reactive Carver (Kirk Acevedo), seems to carry a heavy chip on his shoulder, and Koba, the father of a young ape that Carver injures at the beginning of the film, discovers the humans’ weapons cache and plots to attack them on their home turf behind Caesar’s back.
Koba is played by chameleon actor Toby Kebbell, who you’d recognize from films like “The Counselor”, “The East”, and the underrated “Rock ‘N Rolla”. In an alternate universe, where Best Actor were a possibility for Serkis, Kebbell should certainly receive Best Supporting.
It’s in these performances that we’re able not only to sympathize with the apes, but almost forget that we’re watching CGI. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is simply spectacular, with some of the best cinematography to grace the screen in recent years, courtesy of Michael Seresin (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”). There’s a continuously-shot sequence in which Koba rides atop a runaway tank amidst a massive gun battle until it slams into the side of a building, reminiscent of the car chase in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men”. It is jaw-dropping.
Supporting performances are strong and with purpose, as opposed to just beefing up the credits. Gary Oldman plays Dreyfus, the king of the castle and closest thing to a bad guy on the human side, though he’s really just trying to preserve the human race. His screen time is limited, but as usual, five minutes with Oldman packs as much intensity as sixty minutes with another actor. Keri Russell plays Clarke’s girlfriend and ex-CDC employee Ellie, and Judy Greer abandons her typical effervescence to give Caesar’s companion Cornelia a heartbreaking melancholy.
If you’ve read this far, you should be making plans to go see “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” this weekend. The 3D is unnecessary, but not bad. What I found most refreshing about the film is that, even during the most chaotic action scenes, I could tell exactly what was going on. Reeves’ film is not perfect, but particularly for a story in which the first fifteen minutes of dialogue are made up of sign language and subtitles, it’s incredibly emotional. At the same time, it dethrones my previous big-budget action favorite of 2014, the “Captain America” sequel. This is big, creative, intelligent sci-fi action cinema at its best.
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Amanda Silver, Chernin Entertainment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Dune Entertainment, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Kirk Acevedo, Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves, Michael Seresin, Movie Review, Rick Jaffa, Toby Kebbell, Twentieth Century Fox