Dawn takes another leap forward, with the imagery showing fewer seams and far more apes. Much of the film takes place at an encampment of sentient apes, all apparently computer-generated, but with the distinguishing traits of a human community. A downbeat but thrilling apocalyptic adventure film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes impresses not just through its technical accomplishment, but through the level of soul.
As the apes reckon, “ten winters” have passed since Rise ended with a band of intelligent apes escaping to the woods north of San Francisco. The opening credits recap the simultaneous outbreak of the “simian flu,” a lethal disease that spares one in 500 people and leaves urban unrest in its wake. We catch up with Caesar leading a hunting party in the woods and rescuing his son Blue Eyes from an angry bear. Apes fighting a bear? Best introduction ever.
Dawn features long scenes with no humans, as the apes communicate through a mixture of subtitled sign language and brief spoken words. At the apes treehouse town, wise orangutan Maurice holds classes in rudimentary English, with “Ape not kill ape” echoing a line from one of the early films. The apes’ idyll comes to an end when they run across a human expedition, led by Malcolm (Josh Clark), who recognizes Caesar’s noble spirit.
We soon learn that a small population of human survivors lives huddled in the ruins of San Francisco. Their leader Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman, looking and sounding like Stephen King) reveals that “the colony” is about to run out of fuel and may revert to barbarism without a power source. The answer to their prayers may lie with a massive dam — which happens to be in the middle of the apes’ territory.
With Caesar’s wary permission, Malcolm works to repair the dam with a team that includes his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and new wife (Keri Russell). Militant former lab ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) scoffs at Caesar’s trust of the humans. During an angry confrontation, Koba points at one of his scars and says, “Human work.” He points at another. “Human work.” He points at his split face and milky eye: “Human work!” Koba is neither a human being nor even a flesh-and-blood entity, but it’s as weighty a moment as any movie scene with live actors this year.
Despite the apes’ rudimentary language, their conflicts take on almost a Shakespearean dimension. Caesar’s expression and posture convey how his responsibilities weigh heavily on him, while Blue Eyes, like many a disaffected teen, begins to question his father’s judgment. Koba schemes to protect the apes and advance his interests, but his hostility has justification. He also proves hilariously capable of hoodwinking unsuspecting human guards in some of the film’s rare moments of humor.
The tensions erupt in elaborate battle scenes that feature apes with machine guns on horseback. Cloverfield director Matt Reeves (replacing Rise’s Rupert Wyatt) skillfully segues from character drama to action movie mode and proves expert in Hitchcockian shot composition. One already-celebrated image shows a 360-degree view of a hellish conflict from a tank turret.
Most films in the franchise, going back to the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, find villainy less in the characters than in human nature itself. Certainly the apes equate tendencies such as violence, dishonesty, and self-destruction with humanity. Dawn kind of lets its underwritten human characters off the hook, shying away from holding up a mirror to its audience. By the standards of the franchise’s grimmest chapters, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, despite its visceral conflicts, proves a little tame.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. 4 stars. Directed by Matt Reeves. Stars Andy Serkis, Josh Clark. Rated PG-13. Now playing. At area theaters.
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