Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was one of the great surprises of 2011. Expectations weren’t too high for Rupert Wyatt’s prequel/reboot and yet we emerged surprised, entertained and excited to see where the franchise would go next.
Matt Reeves’ Dawn… is carrying a weight of expectation that Rise didn’t, but the director of Cloverfield and Let Me In creates a follow-up that both advances and honours its predecessor.
It’s been years since the simian flu decimated the human race, and those who weren’t killed by the virus died in the violent struggle to stay alive. In the forests outside what used to be San Francisco, Caesar (Andy Serkis) rules the peaceful ape society in harmony, assuming that we’ve all died out.
Everything changes when two young apes come across a human search party. A band of survivors lives in the ruins of the city and need to get the dam working to restore power and hope…but it’s in the middle of ape territory. Scientist Malcolm (Jason Clarke) knows that they need Caesar’s help, but can they cooperate? Opposition festers on both sides and threatens to destroy everything that both man and ape has worked for.
Just in case you’re in any doubt about who the film’s protagonists are, Reeves spends the first fifteen-odd minutes in the apes’ society (following a quick scene-setting catch-up). We see them hunt as a group, we see their schools, and we see Caesar as the head of his family. It’s idyllic and it obviously can’t last.
The human element is the stone thrown into the lake, as the ripples caused by the discovery that men are still alive lead to aggression in Caesar’s camp. Just as the humans have the obligatory ape-racists (Fringe’s Kirk Acevedo shoulders the “needlessly prejudiced” burden), Caesar’s lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) is violently opposed to any kind of co-existence with the humans. For every step towards trust and understanding that Ceasar and Malcolm take, the danger of the whole situation erupting into violence becomes greater and greater.
This does lead to the film’s Western-infused structure feeling rather formulaic. Malcolm convinces Caesar to let them stay, the humans do something stupid, Koba overreacts and Caesar has to decide what to do, at which point Malcolm…and so on.
The importance of understanding and shedding prejudices is the key theme that the film is honing in on, and it’s part of Reeves’ and the screenwriters’ obvious respect, not only for the source material, but to that classic sci-fi notion that your subject should be a reflection of your times. It’s occasionally heavy-handed but the film ensures that we’re so invested in the characters that it’s moving, rather than maudlin.
Once again, Serkis is vital to the film’s success. The motion capture technology on display here is superb and the veteran performer is simply outstanding, delivering a very strong leading man turn. Kebbell also deserves to be singled out with a livewire performance as Koba.
In comparison, the humans are a lot less interesting but Reeves has cast them well, with Keri Russell (Waitress), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) and Clarke (Lawless) forming a warm family unit and Gary Oldman lending support in a small role as the colony’s leader.
Although it does settle a little too comfortably into its structure, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a moving, involving story that tempers its sentimentality with a surprising pessimism. It’s a testament to how effective the film is that we’re actively rooting against any kind of explosive, violent set-pieces (extremely well constructed by Reeves).
This is a confident sequel from Reeves and company; gripping, moving and recommended.