Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes manages to pull off a conundrum to a conundrum… A sequel to the hugely successful Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), directed by Rupert Wyatt, which was a sequel in turn of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, which was a sequel to Franklin J. Schaffner’s original Planet (1968), which spawned seven follow-ups and a subsequent television drama series. Never mind, there’s a new audience out there that has probably never heard of either Pierre Boulle’s original novel or the innumerable remakes.
Plot-wise, a group of hardy chimps, having breathed in a special serum gas, turn wise and canny, busting out of a chimp penitentiary, hauling ass over the hills of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, making a new habitat of Marin County’s redwood forest. If you’re an order freak it might frustrate that the events portrayed here seem to be parallel or a little bit behind Rise. Whatever! This is the most fun I’ve had at a big budget epic in ages!
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is pretty convincing and fun, definitely superior to its immediate predecessor and the corny mush of sentimentality that goes with the father and son that made it so silly. It’s far harder to believe that fantasy than to believe a successful society of apes cohabiting could thrive on the outskirts of San Francisco. The movie’s cool hero, played by Andy Serkis, is a wise, moral chimp named Caesar, who rules an ape society that has overtaken humans after a deadly virus has killed off most of the Earth’s population. The apes seem to have everything going along just fine until humans come along to mess up the status quo. They seem to be doing OK in the forest, and Caesar, who was raised by human beings (his mom was a lab chimp), has almost forgotten how much he used to enjoy the company of people.
Along come the raggedy-ass, post-Armageddon humans, led by Jason Clarke and his wife, the always sweet and good Keri Russell. And then there’s the very winning Kirk Acevedo as Carver, who is happy to announce, “Okay I’m the asshole.” This he definitely is because he distrusts our mensch of a chimp leader Caesar.
Unfortunately, there’s a power-hungry chimp named Koba (Toby Kebbell) who allies himself with an unscrupulous human named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). They show up to throw poison in the soup cauldron while Caesar is distracted because his wife has given birth to an oh-so-cute ape baby with big, brown saucer eyes. It takes a while for Malcolm and Caesar to figure out what’s going on, but in between its lots of fun.
Matt Reeves—who did a great job on the lo-tech sci-fi drama Cloverfield, along with Let Me In, which was a quite passable English-language remake of the Swedish teenybopper-vampire chiller Let the Right One In. Reeves is a master of the moment—he never lets the movie’s fantastic aura supersede its storytelling. The movie’s action sequences are superb, lots of aerial acrobatic chimp shenanigans. It’s plain old spectacular when the ape-chimps charge into the city from the forest, on horseback.
Toby Koebbel’s Koba definitely steals the film. A survivor of scientific experiments, Koba bears the scars of human cruelty. When the apes encounter a scouting party from the city. Koba warns the chimp-apes that humans are a violent, duplicitous species who must be fought. Ignored, he becomes a villain out of pure frustration and despair. He is like a tragic Menachem Begin gone bad with the willful knowledge that he commits to evil for the sake of doing good.
The movie provides us with some fine allegorical food for thought. All our problems of racial conflict, ecological powerlessness and anxiety over social disintegration are convincingly on show here. It’s definitely a rare sampling of what mainstream Hollywood filmmaking can still achieve. And, of course, between Rise and Dawn there’s room for a lot more future sequels.