People frequently dismiss films from the moment they are announced based on preconceived notions. Others wait until the first photos or trailer come out to declare the movie a failure before it opens. In fact, a lot of people said that about 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, decrying it as yet another reboot of a classic film series that nobody wanted. However, when the film was released thousands of people changed their tune when they realized Rise of the Planet of the Apes was not only a great movie, but one of the best examples of how a reboot can bring a franchise in a completely fresh direction with new technology. Star Andy Serkis was praised for his motion capture performance as Caesar, the leader of the ape revolution, so much that many felt that he deserved an Oscar nominations.
So 20th Century Fox and producers are probably grinning ear to ear over the fact that the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is one of the most anticipated movies of summer 2014. They also have another cause to celebrate: it is the best blockbuster movie of 2014 so far. Director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Mark Bomback have created a sci-fi world that solidifies Planet of the Apes‘ place at the table of awesome sci-fi movie franchises. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is just as smart and heartfelt as the previous movie, but adds more action to the mix to create a stunning summer blockbuster.
Though Rise of the Planet of the Apes was set in a world much like our own, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set ten years after the outbreak of the simian disease that decimated humanity. Caesar (Serkis) and his “tribe” of apes live in the woods outside of San Francisco as a community of hunters. On the other hand, a small outpost of humans living in the ruins of San Francisco led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) seek to turn on a hydroelectric dam in the apes’ territory to restore their electric power. Though suspicious, Caesar finds an understanding with Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a kind human who believes that apes and humans could help each other survive. Though Malcolm’s family — wife Ellie (Keri Russell) and son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) — agree with him, not all of the humans believe that apes can be reasoned with and because of that Dreyfus begins testing the weaponry left behind by the National Guard to prepare themselves for war if the apes stop them from turning the power back on.
However, even the apes do not agree on working with the humans. This encounter pits Caesar, who was raised by loving humans, versus the Machiavellian Koba (Toby Kebbell), who (if you recall from the previous film) was viciously experimented on by humans his entire life. Caught between the two is Caesar’s teenage son (well, in ape years), Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), who does not know if he should trust or distrust humans. He loves father, but his fear of humans makes him feel the same anger as Koba.
In so many ways Dawn of the Planet of the Apes parallels the classic Western. The apes (playing the role of the Native Americans) are a primitive, but honorable, society that assist humanity (playing the usual role of the desperate frontier ranchers) as a sign of friendship despite knowing how it could go badly for them. If you’re well-versed in your Westerns, you can probably predict how that turns out for the apes. In fact, if you’ve read your Shakespeare you can also probably predict how the Caesar/Koba/Blue Eyes storyline goes. But while the storyarcs of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes might be typical, just the fact that I’m comparing a blockbuster sci-fi movie to classic Westerns and Shakespeare should give you an idea about how brilliant the ride is even if the destination is somewhat familiar territory.
Actually, what also makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes even more stunning is that because the apes possess slightly different physicality and temperament than humans, the way they react to situations is remarkably fresh and clever. These are not simply apes playing human roles, these are apes who possess a mix of human emotion and animal instincts. It’s probably not much of a stretch to think this is how early man reacted to conflicts in his environment. I’ve seen plenty of humans beating each other up in movies, which made me even more impressed to see the fight choreographers of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes take advantage of the characters’ simian movements. Furthermore, Oscar winner Michael Giacchino has composed one of his best scores to highlight the action sequences in the film.
Another major leap are the special effects. I thought the ape effects looked impressive and realistic in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. However, over the last three years WETA has found ways to outdone itself by creating apes that are so realistic that I found myself immersed enough in the film to forget that I wasn’t actually watching animals. Endless credit is due to not only Serkis, but also to Terry Notary, who not only plays Rocket but is the series’ “ape trainer.”
Between June’s Snowpiercer and July’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we are witnessing a remarkable trend of intelligent action/sci-fi movies which prove that filmmakers want to make sci-fi movies that aren’t just a spectacle of explosions and carnage (Transformers: Age of Extinction, I’m looking at you). It’s also fascinating how much a big studio blockbuster touches upon issues like racism and gun control without being preachy or simpleminded about them (particularly with gun control because I can see people with different opinions on the issue finding different aspects of the film to embrace). Since we’re quick to point at studios for dumbing down their blockbusters, 20th Century Fox should be applauded for letting Dawn of the Planet of the Apes be the movie it ought to have been.
You will not want to miss Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which offers something incredibly impressive and intelligent in disguise as a summer action blockbuster. Considering that Reeves and Bomback are already working on the sequel, I cannot wait to see what they will do to continue making this franchise one of the freshest coming out of a Hollywood studio.
One last note: While I saw the movie in 3D, I can’t say it really affected my experience. Feel free to go 2D on this one.
Rating: An incredibly smart and sophisticated sci-fi action movie that is as heartfelt as the previous movie, but more impressive in every way (9/10).