"Apes together strong!"
A decade has passed since the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt's 2011 film that successfully rebooted this once beloved franchise from the late 60's) and now we find ourselves in a completely different world. The genetically evolved apes have built a new home in the San Francisco woods and continue to be led by Caesar (Andy Serkis). They communicate through sign language and several can speak. The simian virus that broke out at the end of the first film has practically wiped out the human race and it's been two years since Caesar or any of the apes have seen any human activity. But there are survivors living in the ruins led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and in order to restore power they need to gain access to a nearby hydroelectric dam in ape territory. Caesar's lieutenant, Koba (Toby Kebbell) hates humans and recommends killing them, but Caesar is wise and wants to avoid war. He gives a few men, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), permission to work on the dam only for a few days, but this short lived time of peace hangs on a very thin thread.
Matt Reeves was given the director's chair for this sequel and he doesn't disappoint. It's just as entertaining and smart as Wyatt's Rise. There have been several strong blockbusters that have come out this year and Dawn deserves to be considered among the best. What this film does right is focus on the apes allowing us to sympathize with their cause. Andy Serkis delivers a powerful performance once again and he owns this movie, although I would have to say that Kebbell's Koba is so memorable that he may just be the best villain in a film this year. The humans don't get much attention in this film so of course there is very little character development going on with them. Jason Clarke plays the most sympathetic character and perhaps the only human worth carrying about in this film. I was a bit disappointed that Gary Oldman wasn't given more screen time or a heavier role. Reeves also cast Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee with whom he worked with in Felicity and Let Me In respectively, but they don't have much to work with here either. The true stars of the film are the apes and there is a significant upgrade in the CGI compared to Rise. The apes look and move in an authentic manner. Dawn has everything going for it, great visuals, a fantastic score, a smart script, and some fantastic action scenes. We spend so much time with these advanced apes that by the time we see them riding on horses and carrying machine guns the entire premise seems plausible.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of those rare smart blockbusters where the action and visual aren't the only aspect of a film that has been given some thought. The apes are given personalities and the tension between the two sides is palpable. It isn't just a lame excuse to give us great visuals and cool looking action scenes; it is much more complex than that, and by doing so it creates much more tension. We are entertained just as much as we are forced to think. They have managed to turn a franchise I really didn't care for at first into an engaging and gripping one without ceasing to entertain the audience. When you spend some time creating believable and complex characters and combine them with cool looking action scenes you have the recipe for a successful movie that will leave audiences entertained and engaged at the same time. Their eyes won't be the only thing that are blown away, but their minds as well. And that is what Reeves and his team have managed to do with this franchise. It is sort of a Shakespearean drama combined with fantastic action scenes that are shot really well (there is a rotating shot from the point of view of a tank that was spectacular). I had a great time and I'm sure most audiences will as well.