Take a Drink: for each ape fight
Do a Shot: each time you feel like you’re going to cry
Take a Drink: for each plot twist
Do a Shot: when apes are on horses with guns
Since its origin, the Planets of the Apes series has been one of the more interesting and mixed in film history. It started in 1968 with the Charlton Heston classic Planet of the Apes. Not only was the science fiction action flick quite compelling, but it was also able to address radical issues and be an interesting allegory about race. This balance instantly made it one of the most talked about science fiction films ever, along with its very high-concept premise. Due to its popularity, many sequels were spawned, with some being alright (Escape From the Planet of the Apes) and others being quite awful (Battle of the Planet of the Apes and Tim Burton’s dreadful Planet of the Apes).
Even with the mixed results, the worst part about these sequels was their lack of emotional depth and social commentary. Thankfully, the series came to life with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in the summer of 2011. This reboot of the classic film had the same emotional heft, entertainment value, and social commentary, which made it as good as the original and one of 2011’s best. While Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does not quite reach the level of that film, its certainly holds its own as a really good flick.
Ten years after the ALZ-113 virus has killed most of humanity, the evolved apes now control the world and live in a peaceful society. When they encounter one of the last human groups, both groups and their prejudices begin to lead them to the path of war.
After watching the film, the main aspect of it that I respected was the focus put on the ape characters. Unlike a lot of blockbusters that have characters that take the lead from the talking animals or fantastic creatures, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes puts its main focus on Caesar and the ape colony, rather than the humans in the film. For a big budget blockbuster to do that is certainly admirable and a true rarity.
Leading the Apes is Caesar, who is again played by Andy Serkis. Many including myself consider Serkis’ performance in Rise of the Planet of the Apes Oscar-worthy, yet he somehow outdoes himself here. Serkis is the true leading man, and proves the extraordinary capabilities he has an actor using motion capture technology. Just through facial expression and his eyes, Serkis is able to get across his conflicted emotions with ease. Why Academy voters do not take the skill it takes to do such a performance in consideration is mind-boggling.
Unlike in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar is not the only major ape character. Tony Kebbell, who is signed on to be Dr. Doom in the Fantastic Four reboot, plays Koba, an ape who feels that the humans cannot be trusted. Like Serkis, Kebbell is able to convey his fear of the humans which ultimately leads to his hatred towards them. Judy Greer is also in the film as Caesar’s wife, and while it’s a small part , she does a good job.
There are humans in the film too, and the cast assembled here is quite good. Jason Clarke is someone who I’ve always been a fan of, and makes for a good lead here. Clarke has that natural Hollywood “it” factor to him, while also being quite good with dramatic material, making him the perfect fit for the lead here. Gary Oldman is one of the best in the industry, and really does a lot with little to work with as a colony leader. Both Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee are good actors with small roles here, but both also do a nice job with what they have to work with.
For a summer blockbuster, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a lot of emotional complexity to it. The characters have a lot of comparable features in a lot of ways to their ape counterparts, drawing an interesting comparison. With both the humans and apes, the characters show the essence of man, and especially the darkness of man itself. There are also some great heart-tugging moments, especially involving Caesar and a recall to the first film that had me tearing up.
Replacing Rupert Wyatt in the director chair is Matt Reeves, who is a very underrated director. Reeves is very restrained here from a directorial perspective, but is able to perfectly balance the importance of delivering big budget fun, while also delivering story. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a nice balance between big action setpieces and quieter moments between characters, like he’s accomplished with his previous work.
Speaking of action, the set pieces in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are some of the summer’s best. The scale here from the original has increased in a big way, with giant sets and larger than life action scenes. Seeing apes on horses with machine guns charging at a base could come off as really dumb to some, but to me was very bad-ass. Not only did these set pieces have a certain cool factor to them, but also emotional weight considering the characters involved. Reeves also adds some great stylistic touches, like a fantastic tracking shot involving a tank being captured.
Perhaps the only big issue with the film is a lack of dynamic human characters. While the actors all portraying the characters are good, many of these characters are one note and lack depth. It’s a shame since the main ape characters have a great deal of depth while the human counterparts lacked very much of it. A lot of the human character roles in the film felt like cliches too, especially with the more minor parts.
I also have to question why James Franco was not brought back for the sequel. According to Franco, he was written out of the sequel, and I have a hard time understanding why. The connection between himself and Caesar was one of the main cogs of the original film, and to see how that would have changed through the ape takeover certainly would have been interesting to see. To completely leave him out felt very odd to me.
There are also some more minor issues in the film. The pacing at times felt a bit inconsistent, the first third in particular being a bit too leisurely. There are also a lot of situations in the film that are real stretches as far as plot goes, as most of these conflicts would have been solved if one character could clearly tell the others what exactly was going on.
While not as good as the first, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is by and large one of the best films I’ve seen this summer and delivers on what audiences want to see in summer a summer blockbuster. Now the wait begins for the third film in the series!