***1/2 out of ****
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a very good sequel and one of the best action movies of the summer. It is also a big step for director Matt Reeves, whose film Cloverfield was undervalued as was his beautifully-made, yet needless remake of Let the Right One In.
It is arguable that this reboot of the Apes franchise is also needless, and part of a new movement in mainstream cinema to only make sequels, remakes or anything with a trusted brand-name on it. An over-reliance on CGI spectacle is also an ongoing issue in the movies today. One may criticize all of these things, but I absolutely refuse to do so where they are done so well.
2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, won me over before it was even released. As soon as I found out that the reboot was completely avoiding the lost astronaut story of the original film and was to take place in a modern-day setting with an ape named Caesar as its lead, I had total admiration for where the film's makers were getting their inspiration. In the original five-part movie series, Caesar was not introduced until the very end of the third film and became the main character of the last two films. All the sequels in the original run of films were interesting, yet cheap. I strongly believe that remakes are most valuable when they are of films that had great ideas but could have been better.
The opening pre-title sequence is a haunting montage while calling back to the last film’s end credits -which showed the virus spreading all over the earth. This is a good way of providing exposition to those who are new to the franchise while informing everyone that after ten years of the virus, the planet is a dead-silent blackout.
Following the film’s title is a beautiful close-up shot of Caesar’s eyes. As the camera slowly pulls back, we see he is wearing war paint and is surrounded by dozens of other apes in Redwood trees. What follows is a great elk hunt, which disappointingly, contains the film’s least-convincing CGI. This possible homage to the Last of the Mohicans opening has the right energy but critics of CGI indulgence will have to wait for the next scene when hunting party returns to the ape village where their new culture is thriving as they communicate via sign language. The animation and hard work that went into this aspect of the film is testament to movies as magic shows where meticulous coordination of technological artistry can create the most astounding illusions.
Dawn is loosely based on Battle for the Planet of the Apes in the same way Rise was loosely based on Conquest. A virus has killed most humans and dramatically enhanced ape intelligence. A group of human survivors looking to reactivate San Francisco's power from a dam in the woods, encounter the Apes and both groups are disturbed by the other's existence.
Some people ignorantly blame the apes for the spread of the virus, which killed their loved ones. All apes, with exception of their leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis), have no fond memories of humans. However, the fear of war drives Malcolm (Jason Clarke) to begin a diplomatic strategy with the apes to gain their trust and be allowed access to the dam. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the leader of the human colony, lacks faith that this will work but gives Malcolm a few days while readying his large artillery supply.
Meanwhile, the hopeful Caesar and the former lab ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell), whose hatred of humanity knows no bounds, butt heads. The story slowly develops into a bittersweet tale of trust and friendship built between two separate leaders, whose good intentions cannot control the inevitability of dreadful ugly conflict between their peoples.
Like the last one, the plot holds a lot of the film’s strength but every other aspect to the screenplay by Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa and Mark Bomback is simply acceptable. Director Matt Reeves, like his former collaborator, J.J. Abrams knows how to elevate simple material to grand heights through rich atmosphere and excellent pacing. The gloomy overcast look of the movie is matched by the dread you feel for its characters, who have too much tragedy in their past to afford any more. The score by Michael Giacchino is also a lively contribution and very in touch with the emotional direction the series is taking.
It may be a drawback for some that this is another dark and serious summer movie, following the long string of Dark Knight –inspired, movies of humorless realism applied to fantasy concepts. As an Apes movie, I would not ask it to be anything else. Cynicism is welcome here.