DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Movie Review: The Best Film of The Summer

Ape shall not kill ape… until guns get involved. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes people don’t kill people, guns kill people (and apes), and the movie makes it clear that while both sides in the brewing battle between men and apes have legitimate points and concerns, all of that fades away when a gun is placed in someone’s hands.

Opening ten years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes wiped out most of humanity during the end credits, Dawn is an incredible epic of conflict and humanity, a movie that - in the truest Planet of the Apes tradition - tells a story about our society using the figures of apes on horseback. This isn’t a movie about good guys and bad guys, it’s about good guys all coming to a situation with their own perspectives, their own fears and, in the end, their own weaknesses, and how these well-meaning people and apes follow their best intentions directly to hell.

I’m writing this review as the ceaseless conflict between Palestine and Israel erupts yet again, another skirmish in a slow and prolonged bloodshed that has been the background noise of my entire life. It’s easy to look at the situation and declare a bad guy - the Zionists with their expansionism! The terrorists with their suicide bombers and choices of soft civilian targets! - but the reality is that both sides are wrong, and they are wrong in the service of what they believe to be ultimately right - the safety of their own people. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes echoes this, as two cultures clash and a small series of slights, accidental acts of violence and individual acts of aggression explode into a full war between man and ape, bringing us one step closer to the dystopia shown in 1968’s Planet of the Apes.

In the forests outside of San Francisco is Caesar and his colony, much bigger than when we last saw them in Rise. They have established a society where they live in basic peace and are raising their young to read and write. Caesar is unique among the apes in that he has seen the best side of humanity, but that isn’t even an issue, as they haven’t encountered a human in two years. Maurice, Caesar’s orangutan advisor, wonders if they’re all finally gone.

But they’re not, and Caesar’s son Blue Eyes is out with his friend Ash (son of Rocket from Rise) when they meet a human in the woods. There’s a moment of panic and fear, and then a shot rings out - Ash is down. The human, it turns out, is part of a group trying to get access to a dam where the apes have built their home; if they can get the hydroelectric plant in that dam working again San Francisco will have lights, and they can power the radio transmitter needed to contact other survivors of the Simian Flu.

The opening of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is wonderful. Caesar leads his people on a hunt* at the beginning of an extended human-free sequence. The apes have some words (and they slowly speak more and more as the film goes on, although you have to wonder if that’s improvement or the corruption of humans) but they mostly communicate in sign language, which means Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a major Hollywood blockbuster that opens with about fifteen minutes of subtitles as hyper-real CGI apes talk to each other with their hands. It’s incredible on a meta level - they let Matt Reeves make this movie? - but it’s also incredible on a cinematic level. This opening, squarely placing our sympathies with the apes, is understated and beautiful and lets you know this film is going to be concerned with character.

The rest of the first act has its issues. You can see the seams where other material was excised (Judy Greer was cast as Cornelia, Caesar’s wife who is about to give birth to their second child, and she has absolutely nothing to do. Pieces of her story don’t quite add up, and I’m willing to bet that it’s because she was edited out to keep the focus on the main story), and there’s one too many sequences of one character going here to speak to this character followed by a sequence of that character traveling over here to speak again to the first character. But that’s minor, because Reeves takes these sequences and imbues them with majesty; the scene where Caesar leads his apes to San Francisco to warn off the humans is thrilling and chilling, and I would rather have a clunky script that gets me to that sequence than not have that sequence at all.

Jason Clarke is the human lead of the picture, and he’s a vast improvement on James Franco. Clarke’s character co-founded the human colony in San Francisco, and he’s driven to get the electricity running again. But when he meets the apes he - and he alone - understands that the situation has changed drastically. He’s in awe of Caesar and his intelligent apes, and he works to maintain the peace. Like Caesar Clarke’s Malcolm has a child, and he has a love interest played by Keri Russell; Caesar and Malcolm are mirror images of each other, and while they butt heads they can work out their differences, offering the possibility of hope.

But they have mirror image second in commands. Gary Oldman is Dreyfus, the colony’s other co-founder, who is willing to treat with the apes… to a point. For him the dam is more important than being nice to a bunch of animals, even if they exhibit rudimentary speech. On Caesar’s side is Koba, the terribly scarred lab chimp from Rise, who continuously tests the strength of Caesar’s leadership, and whose scars remind him every day how much he hates humans.

Koba and Dreyfus are antagonists, but to classify them as villains would be small-minded. Each character has strong, understandable rationales for how they behave. Neither one is mad or evil, although they may do evil things to protect their people. That’s what it comes down to for them both - protecting their people, and they fundamentally disagree that a peaceful approach will work. What’s more, both characters are totally corrupted by guns, and as soon as guns get brought into the situation the hope for peace is utterly dashed.

Dawn tells both sides of the story, but not equally. Unlike Rise, Dawn is far more preoccupied with the apes, and the humans get the shorter shrift - which is totally fine by me. The fact that Malcolm has his wife and girlfriend hanging around could be absolutely irritating if the trio were given much more screentime, but the screenplay by Mark Bomback & Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa gives them just enough. The focus is on the ape society, and the political challenges they face as these cultures come together. And that’s the most exciting stuff.

You could take the apes out of Dawn and have the same movie - two tribes come into conflict over a resource that exists only in the territory of one tribe, and it’s a resource that one tribe doesn’t even care about. That’s Avatar, more or less, but Reeves has managed to finesse his allegory in a way the ham hands of James Cameron couldn’t; Dawn doesn’t call attention to its real world parallels but rather lets the characters and the action draw you into the larger story. It’s the stealth way of delivering a social message, to layer it in so deeply you don’t see the real world in the movie, you begin to see the movie in the real world. The next time an IDF soldier shoots a Palestinian teen you’ll remember Kirk Acevedo shooting Ash.

With the focus more fully on the apes the performance capture actors are asked to shoulder much of the movie. We already knew Andy Serkis could do it, and here his Caesar is a wise, no-nonsense leader who is torn by his desire for peace and the need to project strength in order to achieve it, all while keeping his increasingly fracturing society whole. Serkis is, once again, a marvel, and with the aid of WETA animators he is able to bring an unprecedented amount of subtlety and emotion to every move Caesar makes. He gets across entire pages worth of monologue with just one look, a curl of the lip, a raising of an eyebrow.

Toby Kebbell gives Serkis more than a run for his money. He plays Koba, and his rage, his ferocity, the darkness at the core of the character, pulsates through every pixel. Koba steals the movie, and Kebbell plays him filled with guile and menace but also a wounded humanity. It’s a thunderous performance, the kind where Kebbell is able to play layers of meaning in a scene where Koba pretends to be a circus ape to steal guns - we see the put-on, but we also see the intent just under the surface. The actor, in conjunction with the animators, has created a totally real character.

All of the apes are real. There’s a scene where Maurice is sitting in the rain reading a comic book (Black Hole is the book - let’s parse the meaning of that later) and the way his fur is matted and wet and tangled is so real that my brain processed the character entirely as a man in a suit. I was fundamentally fooled on a synaptic level; I’m sure that some day we’ll look back at these FX and find them sort of amusing, but in the moment Dawn of the Planet of the Apes represents the absolute peak of CGI FX. And it’s the peak not just because of the immersive realism but because that realism is used to create characters rather than spectacle. These apes live, breath, feel, hurt, hate.

There is spectacle to be seen, although less than your standard summer blow-em-up. There’s a vicious hand to hand battle at the climax, a throwback to the 80s style of the hero and the villain throwing down in a big way. Before that there’s an absolutely mind-blowing assault sequence where the apes, having stolen the human’s weapon stockpile, come at the San Francisco compound guns blazing, an ape-driven assault vehicle leading the way. Reeves does a single take in this battle that highlights the chaos and horror of the scene in a way that reminded me of Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day opening. It is visceral, thrilling, terrifying, sad and rousing all in equal measure - a true moment of cinematic transcendence.

The final act of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is as moving and thought-provoking as anything in the annals of socially conscious science fiction. In the end Malcolm and Caesar must make ethical decisions that have more weight and are more loaded than you expect to see in a summer blockbuster. I found many of Caesar’s final decisions actually heartbreaking, and the end of the movie, for me, fits into the history of Apes’ downbeat endings, but with an even heavier, more existential aspect. Matt Reeves understands why the downer endings of the previous Apes films worked so well (and why Rise’s ending wasn’t much of a downer at all) - because the movies play with hope only to have it be undercut by an inherent cynicism about the nature of man. Reeves doesn’t have a lot of faith that Israel and Palestine will ever get their shit together, no matter how many good people on either side try their best. Caesar tries to learn the best of humanity, but the apes end up infected with all the worst parts of human nature, a subtle counterpoint to the Simian Flu infection that laid waste to mankind.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes isn’t just the best film of the summer, it’s one of the best films of the year. Thoughtful without sacrificing action, Dawn shows that a movie with characters we care about will be more absorbing, more enthralling than a movie with cardboard characters and constant explosions. This year the simian leader of an ape tribe has more humanity than the human leads of most other blockbusters. It’s a miracle that Fox got this reboot right in the first place, and the fact that this film is better - in every single way - than the first is a sign that the Planet of the Apes series will reign for years to come as the absolute best science fiction film series in the history of cinema.

* total nerd nitpicking, but the apes hunt? This is outside of not only canon but everything I know about apes in the wild. Still, I get the dramatic purpose of the hunt - to show the cohesion of Caesar’s society, how they work together for the whole.

I guess chimps do hunt, as pointed out by many, many, many people in the comments.