Film Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

If 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' successfully restarted the dormant 'Apes' franchise, the superior 'Dawn' indicates the grand saga this new iteration might become.

A general rule of blockbuster filmmaking is that you kick off an effects-heavy sequel with a slam-bang action set-piece designed to get the audience primed for the escapist entertainment to come, not to mention proving that you're raising the bar on what they saw the first time around. So it's striking that director Matt Reeves chooses to open Dawn of the Planet of the Apes—the follow-up to the surprise 2011 critical and commercial success Rise of the Planet of the Apes, helmed by Rupert Wyatt—with a sequence of prolonged...well, quiet.

After a pre-credits montage that fills in the ten-year gap between movies, a gap marked by the death of one civilization (humankind, decimated by the virus unleashed at the end of Rise) and the birth of another (apekind, empowered by their uprising), Dawn deposits us in a dense forest outside the ruins of San Francisco, where the army of simians led by intellectually evolved ape Caesar (once again portrayed motion-capture-style by Andy Serkis) has established a primitive but well-functioning society. His days as a warrior well in the past, Caesar's only mission now is taking delight in the simple pleasures life affords him—pleasures like community and family, the latter of which has grown to include his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), their eldest son River (Nick Thurston) and a just-birthed bundle of joy. Far from a rousing, up-tempo introduction, the first ten minutes of Dawn establish an atmosphere of peaceful calm that's all too rare in the annals of summertime spectacles, to say nothing of post-apocalyptic adventures; the world as we know it may be gone, but there's a newer, potentially better one forming in its place.

The calm is shattered, however, by the booming sound of a gunshot followed by the cries of a wounded ape, and the echoes of that act of violence reverberate throughout the rest of the movie. Perhaps not surprisingly, the source of the gunshot is one of the Bay Area's few remaining humans (Kirk Acevedo), whose itchy trigger finger sets a clash of civilizations in motion. Mankind, or what's left of it, has wandered into Caesar's territory hoping to tap into a steady power source or face total extinction. While the ape-king is initially willing to accommodate their request, forces larger than he—among them, paranoia, distrust and intolerance—conspire to make a peaceful resolution impossible, despite the best efforts of Caesar and his human analogue, Malcolm (Jason Clarke).

It doesn't help that their attempts at détente are repeatedly undermined by individuals they believed they could trust; in Malcolm's case, the pressure comes from Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the leader of the human colony and a proponent for the "strike first" school of diplomacy. Caesar's authority, meanwhile, is regularly challenged by the warmongering Koba (Toby Kebbell), who still carries the physical and mental scars from his life in captivity back when humans ruled the planet.

Rise deserves credit for successfully relaunching the Planet of the Apes brand after Tim Burton's non-starter of a reboot, largely by centering the drama around Caesar rather than a human interloper like Mark Wahlberg or, going even further back, Charlton Heston. (Casting Serkis in the lead role was another masterstroke, with the mo-cap pro doing some of his finest work, aided by the animation team at WETA Digital.) At the same time, Wyatt's movie suffered from many of the standard origin story issues—too much exposition and an overabundance of table setting for future installments—as well as the hackneyed human drama that was grafted onto the proceedings so that James Franco could earn his paycheck. (His romance with a miscast Freida Pinto was particularly risible.)

And there are certainly clunky moments in Dawn as well, particularly in the third act when the action takes over as per summer blockbuster demands and key character beats get lost amidst the din. The movie begins in such a bold way, it's a little disappointing to see it head into more conventional territory in the homestretch, although the action sequences are, at least, cleaner and crisper than the digital Cuisinart of Transformers: Age of Extinction. (As he demonstrated in his sorely underseen 2010 horror remake Let Me In, Reeves has a particular aptitude for choreographing vehicular action; at one point, he places an ape in the driver's seat of a military-grade tank and films the ensuing mayhem from a strikingly composed camera angle.)

Overall, though, Dawn is a more confident and richly imagined film than its predecessor, one that's perhaps sparer in scale, but grander in its technological and dramatic ambitions. Nudging the art of mo-cap forward, Reeves shoots much of the film in outdoor locations, adding a roughhewn texture to this world that can get airbrushed out of green-screen-surrounded soundstages. He also allows the camera to linger on the faces of the apes, affording both the human actors and the animators tasked with interpreting their work the opportunity to craft fully realized performances. As recently as three years ago, there remained a tangible "Uncanny Valley" feeling when you peered into the eyes of a mo-cap character like Wyatt's Caesar or Spielberg's Tintin.

But the facial work here stands head-and-shoulders above what has come before—while labeling it "photorealistic" may still be an overstatement, it's entirely convincing within the context of the movie—which in turn allows the director to really make the apes the driving force of the proceedings. It's a creative evolution that the franchise has been building to since 1968, achieving a tonal consistency and emotional resonance (not to mention a lack of camp) that makes one excited to see what the future holds for Caesar and his offspring under Reeves’ steady hand. The original film will always hold a special place in movie lore, but with Dawn we may just be witnessing the birth of the definitive Apes saga.

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