Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

23 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Summer 2011: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is released to theaters. I decide not to see it. “Really? What’s the point? We all know how it’s going to end.”

Spring 2012: I catch “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” on one of the satellite movie channels. To my surprise, it’s pretty good. I write my three-star review, stating one major problem I had with it: the ending. I write that the story grinds to a halt, obviously setting up for a sequel. “I guess the origin story isn’t enough to set up the events in the previous movies,” I wrote. (Though, in hindsight, isn’t it deliciously ironic to see a film where man’s defeat is the happy ending?)

Summer 2014: No, the origin story is not enough to set up the events in the other “Planet of the Apes” movies, for now we have “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Let’s see how this one turns out… Well, that was one of the best sequels I’ve ever seen. I did not expect that…

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the seventh entry in the “Planet of the Apes” film series. (Actually, it’s the eighth, but who wants to acknowledge the 2001 Tim Burton re-imagining?) Frankly, I think it’s the best in the series by far. It’s a solid sci-fi action film, but it also works effectively in its dramatic and allegorical elements.

The film is set a decade or so after “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” left off, when a virus plagued humankind, leaving much to ruin. A band of humans lives as one in San Francisco and an ape colony lives in the nearby woods. The apes, now more advanced than before, are led by Caesar (again played with stellar motion-capture performance work by Andy Serkis), who recalls the good in humanity more than most of his followers who were caged and horribly treated by their human captors. None of the apes have seen a single trace of humans until one day, when a small group of the San Francisco survivors enter the woods unexpectedly. They attempted to pass through to restore the power grid. Caesar has learned to speak, and so the group’s leader, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), reasons with him for help. But the mutual cooperation unfortunately doesn’t last long, as members of both man and ape clash, leading to the beginning of inevitable war.

The allegories of hatred and prejudice are done quite well in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” without getting preachy or too heavy-handed. There are blunt points that are made, but for the most part, it’s handled efficiently with visuals, interaction, and just the right amount of dialogue that helps get the point across. It makes for an intruging tragedy amongst the blockbuster-expected explosions and gunfire. And what helps even further is the characterizations of both the humans and the apes—the personalities that get the most focus are fleshed out. There are some humans and apes that see a mutual connection—they include Malcolm, Caesar, a nurse named Ellie (Keri Russell), Malcolm’s son Alexander (Kodi-Smit McPhee), and a wise orangutan named Maurice. (I’m not gonna lie—Maurice stole my heart.) But there are many of the other human survivors and many of the other apes who share a mutual hatred for each other and would like nothing more to see them exterminated if only for their own selfish desires of annihilation. The humans that represent it are Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Carver (Kirk Acevedo), and the ape that stands for warfare is Kobo, who often butts heads with Caesar, who tries to keep peace by keeping humans and apes separate in the beginning. But tragically, despite the sincere efforts of Malcolm, hatred breaks free and everything starts going to hell. The parallels of human and ape are effectively done and help make this allegorical tale even more powerful.

Andy Serkis is once-again outstanding as Caesar, hands-down the best, most compelling character in the whole “Planet of the Apes” series. He’ll always be known as the king of the CGI/human blend of acting, and someone at the Academy should give the man a special Oscar for his work. With his work in “Lord of the Rings,” “King Kong,” and now the “Planet of the Apes” reboots, I’d say he’s due for Academy recognition. Exaggeration, you may say? I don’t think so.

Director Matt Reeves (who is also making the upcoming sequel, “War for the Planet of the Apes”) does a great job with the action and gives the audience what they crave in a summer movie, such as a lengthy battle sequence on the streets of San Francisco. But he’s also very efficient in the quieter moments, particularly in the first 15+ minutes, which show the home life of Caesar and the rest of the apes.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” did something I didn’t expect it to do: it made me anticipate the next “Planet of the Apes” movie. Will “War for the Planet of the Apes” be just as good if not better? I don’t know, but I’m willing to find out. If there’s anything I’ve learned from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” it’s not to be cynical about a continuing reboot that comes my way.

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