Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a huge tentpole movie, a summer blockbuster with tons of special effects and huge action setpieces. But this isn’t a film that’s merely interested in keeping you entertained for a little over two hours; it’s one that has its focus firmly set on a select group of characters and one that, because of that focus, tells a surprisingly small and emotionally engaging story. Dawn, the sequel to 2011’s Rise Of The Planets Of The Apes, uses a simple premise to tell a riveting tale of a few humans and a few apes, and the film uses these characters to create compelling scenarios for each and every single scene, culminating in a remarkable narrative.
Dawn‘s story, about a small group of people who stumble upon the apes when looking for a dam in order to provide their city with electricity, isn’t complicated but it functions as an effective springboard for a tale that explores themes like prejudice, war, family, trust and loss. These motifs provide the film with a lot of heart and ground this dystopian sci-fi tale in reality. Dawn certainly evokes a lot of classic movies and literature by using familiar archetypes and a setup that revolves around two opposing factions that fear and hate each other based on their own biases and past experiences, but it finds a way to make it all feel fresh. Mostly because it avoids clear-cut villains and heroes, and it paints all its characters with shades of gray. There’s not one character whose viewpoint you can’t understand, which makes the moments of conflict understandable and tense at the same time; as a viewer you know that there is the possibility of a peaceful solution, but you also see how hard it is to reach that outcome. It’s timeless and current.
But apart from the writing you feel so immersed in the story because of the art design, cinematography, the effects and the acting, and the latter two elements Dawn seamlessly blends through its use of performance capture technology. While the ruined city of San Francisco, broken down and partly reclaimed by nature, and the forest home of the apes both look incredible and immediately pull you into the movie’s world, it’s the characters, brought to life by brilliant performances, who keep you there. While Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee are all wonderful in their respective parts, Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell steal the show as Caesar and Koba, the two apes central to Dawn‘s story. It’s unbelievable how far performance capture has come; these apes certainly look lifelike and, aided by technicians, Serkis and Kebbell’s performances can be and are incredibly subtle and nuanced. Serkis and Kebbell emote a lot through just their eyes and posture and, while Kebbell certainly gets to act bigger than Serkis, both these turns convey very much through very little.
It’s telling that story, characters and themes are the first things to come to mind when discussing the film. But Dawn is also incredibly satisfying as an action-filled summer blockbuster. While it takes Dawn a while to get to the action, when it gets there it means something: there’s a reason for the escalation, mayhem and violence, and you care for all those involved. And it looks gorgeous too: once again the special effects are top-notch and the camera work is nothing short of beautiful. There’s a scene in the third act of the film when the camera registers all that’s happening around it while it’s mounted on the cockpit of a tank. The result is an impressive long take that works both on an esthetic and emotional level. It’s simply astounding what director Matt Reeves has achieved with his Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes: he has expertly balanced all the elements that make a film and it’s obvious from every frame that a lot of thought and hard work has been put into the creation of this movie. The result is not to be missed.
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is an astounding blockbuster with heart, a wonderfully realized motion picture that works on every level. 9/10