Friday 11 July 2014

Film Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The Planet of the Apes series has come and gone over the years - just ask Mark Wahlberg - but 2011's surprisingly brilliant reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes saw the series swing back into action in style. 

Three years on and the customarily dark follow-up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, hits cinemas this weekend - and it's even better than the first.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks the story up several years after the events of Rise. In the intervening years, mankind has been pretty much eradicated through Simian flu, which we saw begin to spread through the end credits of the last film. Millions are dead, and what's left of human society occupy the ruined remains of major cities like San Francisco, a colony lead by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).

Meanwhile, Caesar (Andy Serkis) has forged his own functioning society in the woods, with his band of genetically-enhanced intelligent apes stronger than ever before. He has a family, Cornelia (Judy Greer) and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), and friends, Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Koba (Toby Kebbell).

When a group of humans led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell) venture into the woods in search of a fresh power source, friction between the two sides reaches fever pitch. Thrust into the forefront of their respective sides Malcolm and Caesar must find a way to prevent all out war - but will the actions of others lead to catastrophe?

First of all, I want to go over the narrative in Dawn. Initially, things are set-up how you would expect, with a Dances With Wolves kind of scenario going on between the two sides. Before long however, things veer in directions you wouldn't expect, making this a tough film to call the ending of. It's a very unpredictable and gripping story, one that perfectly illustrates the fragility of society and greyness of war.

The film strives to show us that good vs. evil is not clean-cut in this situation, with both apes and humans being easily relatable to the audience. The two sides mirror one another, with characters on both sides playing the role of hero and villain. There are layers upon layers of motivation behind the fleshed-out characters, with some that eerily match real-world political discourse. Maybe Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama should be taking notes...

So whilst there are 'villains', like devious human-hating ape Koba, you can still see where he is coming from and (sort of) sympathise. The story is deepened by this desire to characterise both sides. What I'm trying to say is, the movie makes you think. This isn't just the kind of 'yeehaw America' simplicity you get from Transformers - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is so much more than just good vs. evil.

The star of the show once again goes to Andy Serkis as the ape leader, Caesar. The pin-point accuracy and subtly in his performance is amazing, as are the visual effects that turn him from actor into ape. The animators behind the scenes deserve equal recognition for the scarily-real motion capture that brings Serkis and the other apes to life. Think Gollum from Lord of the Rings, and then multiply that by 100. I can't stress enough how well-written the apes are in this film, with Caesar and his right-hand man Koba (Toby Kebbell) more fleshed-out and empathic characters than most this blockbuster season.

Seriously, the viciousness and intelligence from Koba scared the crap out of me.

The human casting choices can't be overlooked also, with Jason Clarke and Keri Russell doing a great job there. Clarke in particular was a stronger lead than James Franco was in Rise. Gary Oldman was (as always) brilliant and, like Koba, a three-dimensional antagonist of sorts.

The direction in this film is haunting at times, with Reeves revelling in the dystopic setting. When the (ape)shit hits the fan, Reeves effectively frames the action in a way that hits the audience hard - people get hurt and die, and this isn't brushed aside. I also liked how some scenes had very little cuts, with shots of dialogue between characters running for longer than most.

In terms of pacing, Dawn is hard to fault. The movie is just over two hours long, and this feels like the perfect runtime for the movie. The beginning takes its time to set things up (an opening sequence charting the spread of Simian flu sets the dark tone nicely) before we're introduced to the ape society, complete with hunting parties, schools and councils. Things weave their way through to a shocking turning point, before a balanced and concise finale. Neat, tidy and satisfying, with nothing that drags.

My only complaint was that a couple of the characters, particularly the female ones, felt sidelined or superfluous. Malcolm has a family, but Ellie (played by Keri Russell) and his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-Phee) sometimes feel like they are only there because someone has to integrate with the apes. Ellie has a back-story, but it's only touched on a couple of times. Likewise, Caesar's wife Cornelia has a role to play, but it feels like her screen-time was cut down to keep the film concise.

The Verdict: 9/10

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the thinking man's blockbuster, a tour de force of masterful acting, visual effects and layered political brevity. Loaded with stunning direction, enchanting motion capture and a well-written script, the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise continues to find new heights of brilliance in this near-perfect sequel with a wide appeal (banana pun). Is it an allegory for 21st Century politics, or just a heavy-hitting summer flick about monkeys? You decide.


  1. Wow, great review! I'm looking forward to this one, even though I might not get to see it as early as I'd like.

    1. Definitely make the time to see at some point Brittani, it's well worth it :) Thanks for the awesome comment!

  2. Nice review. I'm still deciding which I liked better, this or Rise, though this is certainly sitting well so far. Very well thought out, and I loved the parallels with the apes and the humans throughout. Very impressive stuff. :)

    1. Thanks for commenting Chris :) I think I preferred Dawn over Rise by quite some way, but that should in no well sell Rise short. Can't wait for the third instalment - let the title speculation begin!

      War? Revenge? Age? So many generic movie titles to choose from!

  3. Nice review. Definitely one of my favorite movies of the year so far. It hits hard on all parts.

    1. Thanks Zach :) All round an awesome movie, a lesson in how to do great sequels :)



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