Release Date: July 11th, 2014 (US); July 17th, 2014 (UK)
Genre: Action; Drama; Science-fiction
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell
It’s always darkest before the dawn, or so the saying goes. Well, if Matt Reeves’ film is the culmination of a dawning ape species, then said saying is spot on. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — we’ll stick to Dawn from now on — is frequently unsettling. Coalescing magnificently with arguably the best-looking visual palette since Middle Earth (every raindrop on fur is accounted for) is a story that sizzles with poise and acute direction. When the lesser of the film’s two halves is still approaching five stars, you know there is a winner playing out on screen.
Rise was a deft and engaging prelude that focused keenly on human-animal relations and biological moralities, but Dawn is more than that. Those traits are still prevalent of course, however Reeves invokes an emotional core by affording his actors the chance to tell a story. And whether it is the ping of Michael Giacchino’s score or the rugged outlook purveyed by Michael Seresin’s cinematography, it’s clear we are back in familiar territory. Apes fans rejoice. Apes newbies prepare. All eyes on the next branch, this one is swinging straight back to 1968.
A decade has passed since the fall of humankind due to viral infection. In San Francisco, a group of seemingly immune people have merged in an attempt to reignite the flame of civilisation, but this uprising is severely threatened when a few of the survivors inadvertently set foot in a developed ape colony. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is colony’s conscience-driven leader who hopes for peace, something that the two separate cultures may never be able to attain.
Fraught with tension, Dawn relentlessly teases a monumental clash. The contrast between two societies — apes and humans — is startling yet not unfamiliar. For better or worse, we watch as a total role reversal unfolds: people live hidden away with basic supplies, whereas apes roam landscapes carrying out practices akin to those originally implemented by human beings. They hunt. They safeguard. They educate. They even wear protective face masks during birth. Armed with subtitled grunts filling in for words, the opening quarter of an hour details this thriving lifestyle as it lulls us into a rhythm of admiration. The following gunshot that dully interrupts with immediacy not only acts as a wedge between life sources, it also represents their inability to coexist.
It takes human intervention to negatively hamper the structure of being that has been mustered by these hominoids. Dawn, then, is a cautionary parable about the disease of humanity; once we infect, we destroy. Reeves tactfully employs this overarching theme — the various characters on both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge openly discuss the merits and demerits of war, necessary primarily due to our own invasive attitude. (“Fear makes others follow.”) As the analysis plays out on screen we’re challenged to weigh up combat as a fundamental prerequisite. Is it? Reeves is firmly in the camp that denounces war and its resultant mess, and it’s hard to argue when his presentation is so compellingly and affectingly relayed. No issues arise when the script occasionally hints at predictability because of the hearty motifs and strands that weave throughout.
In fact, Dawn is all the more interesting because it is about the apes. They are the beginning, middle and end. Unlike Rise — which rightly honed in on human beings and their attempt to control animals — this second instalment sheds more light and dark on ape life. Given this, we’re allocated far more time to see the intricacies of the primate’s in-house relations and potential fallouts. And so, Andy Serkis, the spotlight is yours. The actor famed for his consistently dazzling motion capture acrobatics once again vaults into the skin of Caesar, and subsequently groans out a career defining performance. Each sinew matters because Serkis is inclined to make each sinew matter. Though he plays Caesar with air of perpetual dominance (“Ape not kill ape”) Serkis’ humility shines through. To many he’s simply a voice with no face, that guy who done the thing as Gollum. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge any formal recognition headed his way. What he does is acting, plain and simple. Utterly brilliant, too, and this role is his reward. It’s also ours.
Serkis’ powerful performance is made all the more tantalising by way of Dawn’s visuality. The film looks incredible. Motion capture settles into its surroundings as well as ever and the attention to detail routinely impresses. The apes might as well be authentic, drafted in from Hollywood’s premier acting zoo. San Francisco manifests gloomily, mirroring the prevailing mood of both the narrative and the characters involved. Reeves also harkens back to the tremor-like scariness of two previous outings, Cloverfield and Let Me In, by letting proceedings breathe a foreboding breath or two — the film’s curtain jerker is a genuinely ominous hunting scene. Mature heads also prevail when it comes to violence, which isn’t common, therefore smatterings of red spring with greater gravitas.
Toby Kebbell is Koba, Caesar’s second-in-command. The Brit’s mannerisms are so convincing that you’d be forgiven for thinking Koba is another Serkis creation. On the human front, Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus is the most captivating character. He’s a staunch defender of stretching ethical limits in order to prevail and, despite being fed a little less screen time than other major players, Oldman effectively channels his persona’s mindset. Jason Clarke lands the James Franco role as the human whom Caesar develops a bond with. The Aussie’s efforts are admirable and, more often than not, sufficiently potent.
Dawn, then, is one of 2014’s best films thus far. This reboot of the Apes franchise may yet prove to be a mightily formidable cinematic set once complete, but for now we can at least bide our time equipped with the knowledge that, as a standalone piece, part two has already achieved a status of grandiosity.
Images copyright (c): 20th Century Fox