Andy Serkis returns in what now may be his signature role (yes, even superseding Gollum) as ape leader, Caesar, in the new film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. This new Apes swaps out Rupert Wyatt, director of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in favor of franchise newcomer Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), and Reeves doesn’t miss a beat. Picking up ten years after the first (seventh?) film in the long-running series, Dawn tells the story of two rival groups; apes and humans, fighting for survival in a post-apocalyptic world. While certain members of each group struggle to maintain an uneasy peace between the two tribes, others seek conflict, hurtling both sides toward painfully inevitable violent conflict.
Reeves directs with a slow-burning intensity, expertly maintaining tension in each and every sequence as the story dangles over the precipice into chaos. For every attempt at peaceful coexistence, there is an equal or greater move toward war, each instance of the latter acting as a slowly twisting knife in the audience’s psyche. It’s a testament to the unusually balanced screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback that, even in one of the summer’s biggest blockbusters, action and violence are the very last thing the viewer wants to see onscreen. Characters on both sides of the conflict are well rounded, with fully realized rhetoric supporting their each and every action. Empathy is the name of the game in Dawn, no matter how likable or despicable the person in question may be.
Serkis delivers one of the finest performances of his career in Dawn as a more grim, more mature aversion of the young chimp we saw in the last film. With minimal dialogue, Serkis performs the role with a tangible gravitas, commanding attention with screen presence alone whenever he enters the frame. The film’s other particularly stellar performance comes from Toby Kebbell, playing psychologically disturbed Bonobo, Koba, replacing Christopher Gordon in the role. Kebbell’s physicality and expressions show a whole new side to the possibilities of motion capture technology, bringing to life the most well rounded and terrifying villain of the year so far.
The CGI wizards of WETA Digital have entirely outdone themselves in Dawn, displaying the most impressive use of MoCap technology ever put onscreen. The Apes appear to as living, breathing creatures with realistic weight and tangibility. Not a moment goes by that the reality of the apes comes into question, a triumph of the marriage between VFX wizardry, brilliant performance work and intricate, intelligent scripting.
The strongest, and most surprising element of Dawn is just how thematically and narratively consistent it is with it’s predecessor. Directorial changes within a franchise oftentimes spell inconsistency, as newer directors tend to drop secondary characters in favor of their own, more convenient creations. But Matt Reeves embraces the previous film entirely, not only carrying over every major ape player from the preceding film (even apes that had no dialogue in the first film are given more to do here), but he also keeps the film thematically consistent. Parallels and callbacks abound in Dawn, making it feel like a true continuation of Rise in every way possible. It’s rare that a sequel takes all possible themes and story beats from the original film and expands and grows them in a fulfilling and satisfying way, let alone under a new director, but Dawn does precisely that. It’s not just a great sequel and a great film in its own right.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gives hope for a bright future in Hollywood blockbusters, successfully subverting all dismissive comments and low expectations. Great storytelling can happen in big budget blockbusters, sequels, reboots and prequels, of which Dawn has in spades. It’s example of writers and a director seeing a long-established franchise not as an obstacle to “deal” with, but an opportunity to dig deeper into rich characters and compelling ideas. Not only are the results spectacular, but one of the year’s best films so far, possibly the best so far. If there’s one blockbuster film to see in theaters this summer, Apes is definitely the one.