To everybody else, it surely seemed like a sure-fire success. And yet to me, the fact that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the best blockbuster to be released this summer by a considerable margin took me entirely by surprise. For starters, I wasn’t a big fan of Rise of the Apes (I’m going to omit the second “of the” from the title for the sake of my sanity), which despite a great Andy Serkis motion-capture performance was nowhere near as good as everybody made it out to be; the human characters were uninteresting, and its socio-political allegories were intensely simplified from those explored in the original movies in the franchise.
To make it worse, the sequel was to be directed by Matt Reeves, whose previous two films (Cloverfield and the exceptionally awful American remake of Let the Right One In) didn’t inspire any confidence that this sequel was to be any better, especially considering the unnecessary special effects in his Let Me In proved that he wasn’t the best pair of hands to entrust with a franchise reliant upon them. What is such a pleasant surprise is that not only is the film great, it is a significant leap forward in every way possible for both director and franchise.
Set “Ten Winters” after the events of rise, humanity appears to be extinct, and Caesar is now the leader of a vast ape community in a long abandoned forest. Literally within ten seconds of remarking to his son that he hasn’t seen a single human for the past couple of years, a human by the name of Malcolm (yes, humanity’s saviour is called Malcolm) and his family are spotted and ordered to leave, never to return. One of Malcolm’s fellow travellers shoots a young ape out of panic; the apes respond by travelling down to the human colony and declare that as long as they are segregated from each other, war will never break out. However, as the electricity generator for nearby San Francisco is located within the forest and they have only a fortnight of power left, they must disobey ape orders and return, kicking off a chain reaction of events that it’s not a spoiler to say don’t end diplomatically.
My main problem with the first film was that I didn’t have care about the human characters, rendering mankind’s plight uninteresting. If I don’t find the characters interesting enough, I don’t care about whether they survive – something which is problematic considering they were supposed to be ciphers for the entirety of humanity. Here, the problem is identical, and yet the execution of the film makes this complaint irrelevant; this is the story of the apes, who despite either speaking entirely in a combination of sign language and grunts, or in the case of Caesar and Koba, fluent English, are more fully developed characters, and infinitely more interesting than their human counterparts. The humans again are more broad outlines of character archetypes rather than believable characters in their own right; the hero (Jason Clarke, who gives a great performance despite being given little to work with), the trigger-happy redneck(s), the teenage son whose “seen some shit” and Gary Oldman. Usually reducing characters to such base qualities is a means of criticism, and yet here the characters are as simplified as possible to mean we don’t have to waste time getting to know them before battle commences.
It also ups the socio-political allegory from the original franchise (it’s often stated that everything you need to know about politics can be learned from the first five apes movies), and rather winningly never makes it clear whether we should be rooting for the apes or the humans. All we know is that we sure as hell shouldn’t be rooting for Koba, Caesar’s human hating second-in-command, and inarguably one of the best movie villains in countless years. The Joker? All he did was blow up some hospitals and do some shit on a ferry that proved anti-climactic. Loki? Basically fucking useless. But Koba? He is literally responsible for enslaving the surviving members of humanity, which is pretty much the most conclusive thing any onscreen villain can do. Usually I tend to get bored during final battle sequences due to their repetitive nature, and yet here I was on the edge of my seat awaiting humanities outcome, despite the fact the movie is a prequel and their fate is already predetermined, which if anything makes it an even more impressive achievement.
From a special effects standpoint, this is the most accomplished use of motion-capture to date. These don’t feel like computer generated apes, but real living beings, here seemingly interacting with humans and their surroundings in ways that would have seem technologically impossible even just a few years ago when Rise was released. Whereas James Cameron tends to put technology first and story second, Reeves here puts story and visuals on an equal pegging. When the really impressive ape/human/building interactions happen in the third act, you begin to forget you’re watching such a multi-layered design creation such is the edge of your seat nature of the action. It’s not just the VFX, but also the design of the abandoned city – the human colony, which looks like a cross between a favela and the multi-hundred storey skyscraper in Dredd, is a creation that means that it’s all but inevitable the film will pick up some Oscar nominations for sheer depth of design.
If all of the above hasn’t made it clear enough, I will say it again: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the best blockbuster this summer, not only exceeding the film that preceded it, but even the original franchise it’s been designed to reboot. It is an astonishing achievement technologically, and manages to “go darker” whilst still being the most enjoyable franchise picture of the year.