Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smith-McPhee, Enrique Murciano, Kirk Acevedo
RunTime: 2 hrs 12 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence & Brief Coarse Language)
Released By: 20th Century Fox
Opening Day: 17 July 2014
Synopsis: A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar 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.
One just has to remember Tim Burton’s ‘Planet of the Apes’ to realise how tricky it is to bring to life the humans-versus-simians premise which the French novelist Pierre Boulle had first envisioned and which spawned the five original movies that were released between the years of 1968 and 1973. And yet after Burton’s ill-conceived reboot, Rupert Wyatt’s 2011’s ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ confidently overcame skepticism with a smart, gripping and exciting origin film that grounded the film in today’s reality by using the search for the cure for Alzheimer’s as a jumping-off point and making the apes the more sympathetic characters.
Wyatt doesn’t return for this sequel; ‘Cloverfield’s’ Matt Reeves is at the helm, but if there were any doubts whether Reeves could fill in the sizeable shoes left behind by his predecessor, let us reassure you by the end of this brilliantly-directed, poetically-written and superbly-acted film that it is unequivocally just as good, if not better. Returning to script are writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, and together with Mark Bomback, the trio has fashioned this follow-up as intelligent socio-political allegory of the sectarian violence that continues to rear its ugly head ever so often, in the process taking the franchise to new, ambitious and thrilling heights.
Set ten years after the Golden Gate bridge shutdown, it sees the apes having escaped with their leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) into the redwood forest outside San Francisco settling into a peaceful community which has learnt to communicate with each other through sign language that is translated for our benefit with the generous use of subtitles. It isn’t just apes of course; among those which return from the first movie are the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the loyal chimp Rocket (Terry Notary), and Cornelia (Judy Greer), who is now Caesar's wife.
Deliberately taking it slow for the first 20 minutes in order to allow its audience to settle into the routines of its simian characters, the pace picks up very quickly once they meet a ragtag group of human survivors led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke). On a mission to revive the city’s electricity by restoring the O’Shaughnessy Dam, Malcolm and his group inevitably have to encroach upon ape territory, and the discovery of man amidst their home ground sets Caesar and his trusted deputy Koba (Toby Kebbell) on a divisive path that ultimately establishes the stage for their climactic battle. While Caesar is willing to explore the possibility of peace with the humans, Koba is deadly insistent on waging war in order to claim superiority - and it probably comes as no surprise that Koba gets his wish.
It isn’t just the apes that have to confront their trust issues with the other species; even as Malcolm tries to convince his kind that the apes aren’t just savages, the memory that the species was responsible for the virus which killed many of their loved ones remains etched deeply in the minds of the human survivors holed up in a guarded compound in the middle of a decimated, foliage-covered San Francisco. Especially after Caesar’s show of force following an initial altercation, their unofficial leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) starts to build up their own arsenal of weapons, the former military man still grieving the loss of his family understandably wary of the primates.
There is as much character here as there is plot, so kudos to the writers for taking a character-driven approach to the narrative. Building on Caesar’s personality in the first movie, this one gives him an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership he so professes as he forges an uneasy truce with the humans, proving himself to be both firm and compassionate at the same time. Koba is a persuasive contrast, a former abused lab monkey scarred by savage hate and therefore from an ideological standpoint clearly opposed to the idea of peace and goodwill. Malcolm and Dreyfus are their human equivalents respectively, both characters surprisingly textured as they develop and discover their response to the threat at large from their own experience with the apes.
Indeed, there is mistrust between, as well as, within each species - and as we slowly realise, the human and ape stories come together perfectly to mirror each other, culminating in Caesar’s sad but honest proclamation: “I always think ape better than human. I see now how like them we are.” Reeves works that internecine conflict whether ape or human to tense and frightening effect, ratcheting up the tension to build towards some truly spectacular action setpieces. Yes, this being a summer blockbuster, you can rest assured that the filmmakers have not forgotten to satisfy audiences looking for some visceral entertainment.
Those who are familiar with the city may be able to pick out the resemblance to California and Market Streets in downtown San Francisco, which production designer James Chinlund transforms into an epic battleground where the standoff between apes and humans explodes in jaw-dropping terror. When all hell does break loose, it is truly a sight to behold, but what’s even more admirable is Reeves’ ability to balance these big scenes with some genuinely intimate moments, ending on a heartbreaking and surprisingly sombre note that packs a powerful emotional punch. Reeves finds new definition in ‘emotional spectacle’ - that’s how good the mix of emotion and action comes together.
But of course, that would not be possible without the technical wizardry of Weta Digital. Outdoing themselves in every single regard, they convey through motion capture the apes’ feelings beautifully through facial animation - we’re not just talking about one or two, but an entire colony here, and it is certainly an feat that not only does each one register as fully as he or she does, but does so at a remarkably expressive level. Add to that as well how they have seamlessly integrated the apes’ new abilities (e.g. riding horses, brandishing firearms) into outdoor location exteriors and you get a sense of just how amazing their accomplishment is.
Even more so than in the first movie, British actor Andy Serkis continues to challenge the conventional understanding of acting, putting in a nuanced performance full of dignity and bravado through motion capture. On almost every level, whether storytelling, emotion, acting, or action, ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ exceeds its predecessor. It isn’t just a great summer action-adventure; it is classic science-fiction, restoring the franchise to the heights of its glory with quite simply one of the very best films you’ll see this year.
(It's no small feat to top an already impressive 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes', but this sequel does so in almost every regard, combining heart-stopping action with intense emotional drama to create a truly exhilarating experience)
Review by Gabriel Chong