To be entirely honest with you, I walked into Dawn of the Planet of the Apes not expecting to love it nearly as much as I did. I enjoyed the first one, but it didn’t really wow me outside of Andy Serkis’ phenomenal motion-capture performance. And that’s basically what I expected to think of this one as well; but I was very, very mistaken.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is absolutely breathtaking from start to finish. It tells a personal and powerful story that is wonderfully carried by a superb cast of both human characters and the hyper-intelligent apes that feel just as much real, if not more so, than the entire cast of human characters. The real shock for me, however, was just how relatable and believable it all was.
For a movie that stars apes capable of riding horses and using firearms, the fact that I totally bought into everything I saw is a testament to just how well choreographed everything about this movie is. In many ways, Andy Serkis’ Caesar, the ape from the first movie and now leader of an entire colony of evolved and intelligent apes, is the most relatable and sympathetic character in the film, which is a huge achievement in and of itself.
Despite being an ape, I never once thought of Caesar as an animal but rather as a fully developed and realistic portrayal of a father struggling to keep his family together. Andy Serkis gives a gutturally powerful performance here, and even though it was all motion capture, there is no denying just how talented of a performer Serkis is, and it’s his screen presence that makes the movie the gem that it is.
Of course, Caesar wouldn’t be the character he is without the breathtaking animation that makes up every fiber of his being. While Serkis’ masterful motion capture work should definitely earn him an Oscar nod at the very least, it’s the special effects team that deserves the highest of praise. I have never, in all my life, seen a film look this good.
Every single ape we encounter in the film, of which there are a lot, is one-hundred percent animation, and the results speak for themselves. Every hair on their muscled bodies, each breath they take, the way they nostrils flare under pressure, or just the subtle reflections in the irises of their eyes, it all comes together to create an unparalleled cinematic experience that I will never forget.
Along with Serkis’ work here, Toby Kebbel also performs extraordinarily well as Caesar’s second-in-command, a powerful yet aggressive ape known as Koba. Kebbel gives Koba such a domineering presence on screen that it almost forces you to sit on the edge of your seat. While Koba’s hatred for humans seems extreme, it’s shockingly believable, especially when you learn just how badly he was treated when under the human’s so-called ‘care.’
And when Serkis and Kebbel occupy the same scene, the movie is at its absolute best, as they so perfectly understand their respective characters that you can’t help but get caught up in everything they do. Even though a large amount of the ape’s communication is portrayed through sign langauge, I was never annoyed or even distracted by the subtitles, and it only made the rare times when the apes actually speak all the more monumental.
The plot itself is fantastic as well, and while it might not be as groundbreaking as the special effects are, it carries the film really well and gives all the characters, both humans and apes, a ton of great material to work with. The dialogue is especially strong, and imbues each and every scene with an extra layer of realism and depth that goes a long in way in furthering your involvement in the story.
While the human cast might not feel quite as groundbreaking as Serkis and the other brilliant motion capture artists, I would be amiss if I didn’t give them the credit they rightfully deserve. Gary Oldman gives a really strong, albeit minor, performance as Dreyfus, the leader of the humans who survived the disastrous Simian Flu that killed off ninety-percent of the human population ten-years prior to the film’s beginnings.
However, it’s Jason Clarke who deserves most of the credit, as it’s his nuanced and weighty performance that enlivens the plot in some fantastic ways. Much like Caesar, Clarke’s character Malcolm is a man focused only on the protection of his family. The film also brilliantly parallels Malcolm’s personal journey with that of Caesar’s, as we watch as they both have to decide just how far they’re willing to go in order to protect those closest to them.
Unfortunately, some of the supporting cast don’t fare quite as well. Although it might not be all their faults, as they each do the best with what they’re given, the problem is that they just aren’t given that much to do. Keri Russell feels like an especially missed opportunity, as I felt like her fantastic talent was sadly underused in her role as Malcolm’s wife Ellie.
She does have some nice moments with Malcolm’s son Alex, but the relationship between those two never quite reached its potential, and instead felt like a side-plot that could’ve been cut entirely and not impact the overall story even a little bit. While not a disastrous flaw in any way, it was a bit disappointing to see such talented actors not given the material needed to make them really stand out.
Other than that though, everything about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is magnificent. From its stellar understanding of suspense and tension, to the care with which it treats the themes it presents, this is a gloriously told story that shocked and surprised me at every possible opportunity.
If that wasn’t enough, it’s also a really great action movie, and it uses its explosive and thrilling action sequences to enhance the plot, rather than distract from it the way many summer blockbusters are guilty of doing. There are even some moments that borrow heavily from classic horror films, and manage to be legitimately unsettling, which is just a testament to how capable of a director Matt Reeves is.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a science fiction masterpiece. It is easily one of the very best films I have seen this year, perhaps even surpassing Snowpiercer, and it’s an experience that I will not soon forget. It was a thrilling ride from the start all the way until the credits finally rolled, and I cannot wait to watch it again just to see if there was anything I may have missed the first time through.