We’re living in a world reboots, re-imagining and recycled ideas. We might as well face it. When a good and original movie comes along (see Edge of Tomorrow my review HERE), it’s difficult for it to find a foothold amid sequels and continuations and branded properties. I know that I am part of the problem as I am eagerly looking forward to any number of sequels (see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Star Wars Episode VII, Avengers: Age of Ultron, et al) and am ready to watch the latest adaptation of Batman (see Gotham) on television. Like anyone else, I eat this stuff up.
I know that’s why I was looking forward to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I really enjoyed Rise of the Planet of the Apes (re-watching it in anticipation of seeing the sequel reminded my how fun it was) and I had heard only good things about Dawn.
I wasn’t disappointed. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a very good, if not entirely original summer movie. Clearly it’s not original because it’s a sequel to a re-imaging of a film series (as detailed above, that’s not necessarily a bad thing) however, it’s also not original because… it’s just not that original. More on that later.
First, the real stars of the movie are, of course, the motion capture actors who play the apes. Andy Serkis is well-known for his work as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, and he deserves the notoriety. His Caesar, the protagonist of the movie and a holdover from Rise, is a fully realized character. Serkis involves the audience in Caesar’s story right away. From the mesmerizing opening shot – a pull back from Caesar’s expressive eyes – to the end shot, the apes are as real and, perhaps, more fully developed than the humans in the movie. Serkis’ Caesar anchors the story. His movements are arresting, his performance award worthy. If Caesar doesn’t work, none of the movie does. And Caesar works. Overtime.
The other ape characters, though they have less focus and screen time, are equally impressive. Tony Kebbel’s Koba holds his own with Caesar. He, too, was in the first movie and the filmmakers do something smart with him and with all the ape characters – they find a way to mark him or color him to delineate him from the other apes. I never lost track of Koba when he was on-screen and he gets two fantastic moments. First, as has been illustrated by the previews for the movie, Koba takes a ride through fire on a horse. Firing twin machine guns. It’s a pure, geek-out, summer fun moment. Second, there is a truly hilarious scene of Koba playing on the expectations most humans have of apes which I won’t spoil here. You’ll know it when you see it.
All of the apes are just stunning to watch and there is never a moment I didn’t believe that they are totally real. In fact, I was amazed by how much these pixel-created characters were able to make me feel emotionally. Completely differently from a Pixar movie or an animated movie where the audience is buying into a fantasy world that is constructed out of whole cloth, Dawn takes place in a version of the “real” world. This makes the feat of developing emotional resonance all the more impressive.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a fun summer movie. It’s been wildly well reviewed (91% on rottentomatoes.com as I write this). It’s a good way to spend a couple of hours and I look forward to the third installment (see, I am a sucker for a sequel) rumored to be called simply Planet of the Apes. But there’s really nothing in terms of plot happening in this film that audiences haven’t seen many, many times over. The plot is not particularly complex nor incredibly well executed. Though the movie treats the audience as if they are at least as smart as the apes – something I appreciate – the human characters and pieces of the story come off rather flat. The humans are stereotypes. In truth, the apes are, too, but it’s easier to forgive in the amazing apes than it is in the ho-hum humans.
I like the cast. Jason Clarke is on the cusp of something big (Indiana Jones re-boot anyone?). He is very solid and a great lead. He carries whatever gravitas the human part of this story is able to generate. Keri Russell is a welcome addition and she manages to make an impression in her limited scenes. And the ever reliable Gary Oldman is on hand to provide some dramatic tension, but we really don’t get to see him flex any acting muscles. It’s a pretty one-note performance, but that’s not on him. That’s on the script. It is only in their interactions with the apes that the human characters are at all engaging. I found myself in the scenes without the apes missing the apes. Without the apes, this movie doesn’t work, and that’s fine, because, after all, it does have apes.
But, here’s the deal: this summer has been pretty brutal for movies. They just haven’t been that good. I think we’re willing to give Dawn more of the benefit of the doubt than it deserves. We’re willing to say it’s excellent when it’s likely just very good.
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES receives three and a half plate-glass windows out of a possible five.