Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Review


Reboots of classic franchises have become a very obvious trend in Hollywood, but while most of them fail horribly in recapturing the true essence and excitement of the original, 2011's prequel/reboot of the classic Planet of the Apes franchise was a surprise hit when it got released in theaters. Focussing primarily on not only the rise of the apes but most importantly on the personal story of revolutionist ape Caesar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes shined light on a new previously undepicted perspective of this sci-fi franchise.
With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the next chapter in the reboot focusses on the conflict between the now intelligent apes' culture versus the remaining humans in a post-apocalyptic world. Can director Matt Reeves live up to the high standards or even surpass the predecessor? Or is this a revolution that you can easily skip?   

The plot:
A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth's dominant species.
Source: Twentieh Century Fox 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set a couple of years after the happenings of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and pretty much picks up where the 2011 movie left us off. With the ALZ-113 virus having eradicated most of humanity, the movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, in which entire cities are left completely abandoned or only partially inhabitated by groups of surviving humans, who try to gather every left resources they can. While humans are living in own camps in parts of cities, apes are living in their own tribes and tree house villages in the woods. Both fronts however fear and despise each other, trying to have as little contact to each other as possible, yet oftentimes confrontations and conflicts occur leading to deaths on each side.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does a very great job in establishing a good premise atmosphere. Completely different from the mostly urban themed Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn is primarily set in the post-apocalyptic woods around San Francisco emphasizing the overgrown abandoned city setting as well.
Furthermore, the situations of the humans and apes are nicely put into perspective. While apes finally seem to be having the freedom they were longing for with their own culture including hunting, teaching kids their language, etc., humans on the other hand face the ruins of their world that they try to reclaim - One species is looking at a bright future, while the other one is struggling to piece back together their former lives.
What's great about it, is that most of the subtlety of said situation is coming to life due to the movie just throwing you into the situation without the need to greatly recapture everything that has happened so far. The introduction into Dawn works like a charm, showcasing the two different cultures and situations of the apes and humans, while also establishing their troublesome relationship that takes the center stage in the movie. 

Sticking together during hard times.

Furthermore, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a clear structure that can be seen as split up into to two parts.
The first half of the movie puts most of its focus on establishing the inevitable big main conflict at the the end through the situation that the group of human survivors (lead by Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke) need to work on a broken dam in order to regain electricity for their camp. Problem is that the dam is located in the ape tribes' territory.
Cooperations and negotiations between the apes and humans start, which in many cases show that both species have what it takes to co-exist and live together yet suddenly also stumble into situations of distrust caused by individual members of each group, who just won't show any tolerance for the other.
While the human group has multiple individuals who represent said black sheep in the group, most notably Koba, a rough looking chimp with a bad past, is the main problem in the ape tribe. Though Koba, like the other apes, trusts Caesar as their leader, he generally distrusts humans fearing that they eventually will kill the ape tribe once they regain their power.

With that said, there is a lot of intelligent dialogue and emotions happening during Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in which not only the humans but also the apes can be easily understood as a species that rightfully wants to live in and defend their home.
What makes it the more interesting to watch however, is especially the fact that even the intolerant and unbelieving black sheep in the groups like Koba can be completely understood in most aspects. It only goes to show that general "fear" of losing our loved ones and our home, just like it's the case here for the humans as well as the apes, often leads to certain individuals destroying the hopes of a peaceful life together. In that sense, there is a lot of parallel-drawing in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in which the movie not only serves as a great sci-fi movie showcasing a possible scenario of the struggles regarding co-existing with another dominantly intelligent race on our planet, but also as a metaphor for our real world's problems considering the tolerance and communication between different cultures.
In that sense, Dawn delivers great emotional scenes, in which a peaceful relationship between apes and humans becomes a credible hope, only for that hope to be shattered through conflicts that will inevitably lead to what we all know will be the "Planet of the Apes".

You might not have guessed it, but Koba doesn't like humans very much.

Dawn's second half has a far faster pace than the first and can be qualified as far more blockbuster-esque. Focussing now on the drastic war outcome of some of the story's conflicts, the second half of the movie leads to a great climax that delivers the necessary grand scale action.
Though some might say that the movie loses its tension and edge in the second half, all the action and escalation in the movie's second half serves as a necessary and dynamic payoff for the movie to be an overall well round-up experience.

What's most interesting is how director Matt Reeves manages to not make one of the sides look like the clear hero, but instead, both sides, apes and humans, come off as mostly equal fractions, which both have their positive strengths but also naive prejudices against each other.
In a movie like Planet of the Apes, it is extremely easy to go the clichee route and place one of the sides (namely the humans) as the obvious "bad guys", and play out the apes as the superior and far more peaceful creatures.
Luckily such a hammered-in clichee message is not present in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (though it might seem like that at first). Aside from other aspects, Dawn's message might be nothing too new but is nevertheless carefully and expertly handeled in this sci-fi movie, in which there are no thinly written antagonists but fairly complex beings on both sides with understandable motivations.

Complicated negotiations ahead!

As already mentioned, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not a full-on action fest like it might seem from some of the trailers. Though it does have blockbuster-esque feels to it, those are mostly present in the action-heavy second half of the movie.
And while the grand scale action scenes are exciting, tragic and impressive to look at, it's especially the efficitent build up from the first half of the movie that makes the climactic final encounters and fights between apes and humans so effective.

On top of that, there are the effects, which are very obviously top notch.
Coming from New Zealand Oscar-winning effects company Weta Digital, they pretty much topped their previous efforts from Rise of the Planet of the Apes here.
In great thanks also to actors like Andy Serkis, the apes in Dawn look incredibly realistic. While there are only occasionally parts, in which you can kind of tell that a certain ape looks a bit too artificial (most notably a certain baby chimp), those are all small nitpicks in a generally fantastic effects achievement.
Interestingly enough, while the apes do certainly look like real-life chimpanzees, gorillas, etc., the outstanding face-capture work from the actors makes every emotional facette of each ape come greatly to life.
Whereas it can be hard to directly tell what a real-life ape is feeling when looking at him, here, the intelligent apes are carefully humanized to a certain point, at which it becomes ridiculously easy to sympathize with them and to think that those are not animals but just different looking humans...which only draws another visual layer to the movie's general "parallels-oriented message".

Surprise! Weta Digital once again nails the effects!

Actingwise, the entire cast delivers solid to great performances, while especially the apes happen to steal the show.
Of course Andy Serkis as the main star-ape, Caesar, is absolutely awesome.
Balancing emotions and characteristics like leadership, anger and devotion to apes as well as humans, Caesar's personality is far more fleshed out in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
On the other hand, other apes like Koba (played by Toby Kebbell) serve as great counter-personalities, whose prejudice- and hate driven personalities bring great tension between the human and apes as well as among the apes themselves.

On the human side, most performances are kept fairly solid.
Actor Jason Clarke, who tends to become more and more present in big-budget Hollywood productions, serves as a great human lead character in the movie. Although he might occasionally come off as simply too "clean" and "unprejudiced" among all of the other human survivors, he does well as a charismatic and relatable protgaonist. Along with him are his wife Ellie, played by Kerri Russell, and his son Alex, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who share the same character traits with Clarke's character.
Probably the most interesting human character however is Dreyfuss, played by Gary Oldman. Expectedly delivering very good acting, Oldman's character is both easy to root for yet also fairly easy to dislike. Many impactful scenes with him show different facettes of his character that mark him as a complex person, that doesn't act unwisely through hate for the apes but mostly through fear of losing his loved ones. Leading to great key-scenes in the movie, his character is a very welcome addition in the otherwise pretty thin human cast.  

Let's drink on one of this year's best movies so far.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not necessarily a superior sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but without any doubt a worthy sequel that maintains the same high level of quality set by its predecessor.
With a new setting, new stakes, risks and conflicts coming out of the post-apocalyptic world, in which both, humans and apes, find themselves in, a lot of topics are handeled with great care by director Matt Reeves. The movie has a great sense of build-up and climactic payoff, while avoiding shoving clichee messages into the viewer's mind by posing each side of the conflict as equally problematic and flawed species, that have to learn to live with each other. Of course it is all topped up by fantastic special effects and great acting from a respectable cast.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes won't put the sci-fi genre on its head, yet it's easily one (if not THE) best entry in the long running Planet of the Apes franchise. All in all, it's an intelligent and emotionally resonant blockbuster, that very nicely balances thematic relevance and action in its overall experience.

Final Verdict: 8 out of 10 

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