Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, despite earning the award for Least Pleasurable Title to Say, is the most Disney non-Disney movie to come out in quite some time. It certainly deals with some darker sentiments and graphic visuals, but it plays to the strengths of telling a visceral, relatable tale through cinematic parallels. It even manages to touch on some surprisingly potent themes, though its predictable nature certainly hinders the narrative’s emergent impact.
Taking place ten years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the world has been thoroughly ravaged by the Simian Flu, scientifically known as HSN1 or ALZ-113. Aesthetically, it looks an awful lot like the world of The Last of Us, post-apocalyptic as shit with nature reclaiming large portions of major metropolitan areas and breaking down the quarantine checkpoints meant to protect the surviving human populace. It’s certainly a tired milieu, but it’s presented exceptionally well.
Caesar is now the full-on leader of the ape community of San Francisco’s Muir Woods, but no word on what happened to Rise‘s Will Rodman or Caroline Aranha. Instead, we’re shown what is left of humans. Gary Oldman plays the leader of a survivor camp holed up in a reinforced tower in downtown San Francisco. Jason Clarke plays the other leader of the group, far more sympathetic to the desired coexistence of ape and man, while Andy Serkis returns as lead ape Caesar.
I won’t reveal much more about the plot other than Clarke’s Malcolm has to bring a group to Caesar to get dam up and running to keep their community from devolving into a pit of electricity-less barbarians, but the overall plot of the film is disappointingly predictable, which was also a problem of the first movie as well. Even the action that eventually throws everything tumbling to the bottom of Shit Mountain is easily called through basic nomenclature and an understanding of Shakespearean archetypes.
That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s a bad story. Just because you can see where a roller coaster begins and ends doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the ride. On the contrary, Dawn is hoisted up on the shoulders of an unnecessarily (but not unwelcome) nuanced approach to a cliché filmic topic and exceptional performances.
The obvious foil to society is the idea of xenophobia. It’s a general amalgam of racism, dangerous zealotry, and straight-up xenophobia, but applied to the idea of hating the unknown and unwelcome advances of a primal beast. It successfully stirs up a primal fear on par with the likes of Scar from The Lion King or The Blair Witch Project. The former clearly illustrates a rule and takeover by fear through strength and unknown bestial project and the latter taps into the core terror of the familiar turning unfamiliar.
But through the actions of Caesar and Malclom up against those of a real dickhead of a human and an absolute asshole of an ape, Dawn invites the deliciously grotesque question of what is human nature. Do we call it that because it derives from humanity or simply because we are a part of nature? Scenes of the movie are unabashedly proud of how well crafted it juices that idea, and it is better for it in those moments of clarity.
A large part of that comes from the capability of the actors in the film. Oldman is no surprise here, though it’s still greatly appreciated that he brings it to the table still. He has this ability—as he’s always had—to visibly be shattered by egregious emotion and then shift into overdrive with anger or fear or determination, but you never lose that spark of vulnerability. Kirk Acevedo as Carter, the aforementioned dickhead, does his jerk role with aplomb, as Clarke takes the other end of the spectrum with great tenderness.
It does, however, come down to Serkis. A master of motion capture, he does more than just supply simian movements and barbarous grunts. He has a knack for tapping into the absolute base foundation of not what makes a character’s motions but why. There was a scene where he did as he’d done all movie: walk upright in the way an ape would. Utterly unbelievable in how believable it is.
But then he comes across an obstacle just high enough for his stunted ape legs to not be able to clear. And he reverts—seemingly reluctantly—to an ape-like approach, clambering and hopping over. And in another scene, dozens and dozens of apes come pouring forth from a train station. All of them jump over or duck under the turnstiles, but Caesar puts a hand out and pushes it around as he walks through.
Those otherwise unremarkable moments highlight that Caesar doesn’t know what he is. He, superficially and genetically, owes fealty to the community of apes he has cultivated and liberated. But he was raised to love and trust a family of humans. He knows it’s possible for the two to coexist, but he doesn’t hope for it. He only knows it’s there, and that leaves him stuck in the middle. It’s a delectably brilliant nuance from Serkis.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention how impressive the movie looks as well. Gamers are probably familiar, perhaps numb, to well and overly produced computer-generated visuals in an era when Blizzard and BioWare cutscenes rival that of Pixar. But there’s a humanity in the eyes of these apes that is startling. It’s the spark that, when absent, throws you into the bottom of that Uncanny Valley. The ending shot, instead of being laughable and awkward, was genuinely paralyzing. You’ll understand when you see it.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t just achieve at being what so many sequels aspire to be (which is to say better than their predecessor) but it is actually just a good movie. It combines several noteworthy feats into a single film whereas so many others struggle to nail just one of them. It is far from a breathtaking or fantastic movie and its predictable nature oddly enough makes the more action-oriented scenes the slowest parts, but my god if it isn’t wholly worth your time.
+ Invokes a surprisingly philosophical rumination of human nature and deception
+ Andy Serkis’ nuanced performance as Caesar is simply stellar
+ Undeniably impressive in the visual effects department
+ Succeeds at emotional resonance without being overly sappy
– Exceedingly predictable in perhaps the most egregious ways
Final Score: 9 out 10