Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) has firmly built on the success of its predecessor Rise of the Planet of the Apes and taken it to unexpected heights. A deeper, more nuanced, and far more exciting version of the epic series, Dawn is one of the best films of 2014 thus far.
Premise: Caesar now leads a growing population of enhanced apes but are threatened by a band of human survivors. Their fragile peace is short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war. Result: A brilliant and thoroughly satisfying sequel.
Dawn begins with exhilarating opening credits that depict the human apocalypse at the hands of the “Simian flu”. In the chaos of an inescapable disease, humans essentially destroy one another and the aftermath leaves few, if any still alive.
But Dawn is not about humans, as much as it is about the new “rising” alpha species, Apes, led now in San Francisco by our familiar protagonist, Caesar (Andy Serkis). Ten years after the first film and after the plague which wrestled world dominance from the hands of sinister humans, Caesar – with the help of his fellow apes – have built a primitive society based on peace and the hunter-gatherer method.
Other familiar faces surface like his #2 Koba (Toby Kebbell), Rocket (Terry Notary), and the ever adorable orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) all with prominent roles in this new society; they are now mixed with new faces, their spouses and children, like wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and Rocket’s son Ash (Larramie Doc Shaw). To them, peace and progress are essential themes, and their struggle is against nature deep in the Marin County forests, believing humans to have become extinct.
But one day, a sudden encounter with Carver (Kirk Acevedo) and several other humans Malcolm (Jason Clarke), Ellie (Keri Russell), and Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) creates new urgency, as humans are still very much a presence, and supposedly as dangerous as ever. Their run-in reveals a large camp of humans still in San Francisco led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and in need of a power source that is squarely within the Ape territory.
The rest of the film is as much an emotional/psychological struggle as it is a physical one. Caesar remembers humans for both the good and the evil that they were capable of, and senses that Malcolm is reminiscent of the good he recalls. But Koba, Rocket and even the wise Maurice (as most Maurices are), are mistrustful of humans, having been born in their shadow and cruelty.
This internal battle is further exacerbated by a very real desperation on behalf of the humans and rage on behalf of several apes, led by Koba. Their emotions are raw, justified and set our two worlds on a terrifying collision course.
What ensues is a brilliant display of writing and direction, painting a very real portrait of complex, deep emotions that will resonate with audiences while juxtaposing this with some serious, mesmerizing action. There are some absolutely spectacular battle sequences that heighten tension that has already been established by the expertly established interpersonal drama, rather than serving in place of it. It is impossible not to care about all the characters in this film and simultaneously loathe certain aspects of them.
Ultimately, the central theme of this film is Caesar’s realization: it is not the nature of Humanity that makes it capable of Evil, it is the fact that it has been given Consciousness, to Reason, to rationalize and ultimately to turn against better nature and their own kind. And worse, that as this gift is transferred to Apes in this new age, that they too must struggle with Good and Evil.
The performances in this film are all quite strong, filled with nuance at every step: Clarke, Russell and Oldman exhibit this perfectly. And the performers that portray the apes, such as Serkis, Kebbell and Konoval, all nail their roles with unbelievable efficacy. When they are on screen, it is impossible to look away.
Ultimately, Dawn is far better than expected, despite already high expectations. It is deep and intriguing conceptually while also having superior but not superfluous action to keep up the pace. Definitely a must watch.
Rating: 8 – An expensive red wine and juicy steak