Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review

downloadSan Francisco is not getting any breaks this summer.  First a giant lizard, now an army of apes.  All it needs is a Jaeger to complete the set.

The surprise hit of 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes managed to successfully reboot a dormant franchise that had been ruined in past years by either middling sequels or unfocused attempts to bring the concept to a modern audience.  RPA (abbreviated) managed to tell a personal story about the ape Caesar and how he managed to become sentient, along with a troop of loyal simians, in a realistic and smart manner.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (DPA) manages to continue that overall atmosphere by sticking to brains instead of brawn for this flick, surpassing its predecessor and already being called the “Empire Strikes Back” of the franchise.  High praise indeed.

If you watched the first film, you saw in the end credits that the modified Alzheimer’s virus has started to spread across the globe, killing all human life around the planet while apes remain unaffected aside from gaining enhanced cognitive abilities.  A few years down the road and most of the population has been extinguished, apart from a few colonies made up of humans who are genetically immune to the virus.  These colonists are trying to survive in the remnants of San Francisco, nearby where Caesar has made his home in nearby Muir Woods.  Tension occurs when humans are forced to venture on the territory that the apes have carved for themselves in an effort to turn on a hydroelectric dam (thereby providing them with a valuable source of energy) but Caesar wants nothing to do with humans after clashing with them in the previous movie.  Through a set of carefully constructed plot points, the entire situation unravels and both human and ape once again go to war.

That synopsis was deliberately kept brief because to say any more would be giving away big spoilers.  What I can say about the film is that it is entirely unpredictable.  You have no idea where things are going to go in this film, an aspect of which kept me on my toes throughout the whole film.  The movie doesn’t delve into cliche and the situations that the characters get themselves into are realistic and highly plausible.  The marketing boys deserve their paycheck for giving us enough material to whet our appetites but not having to spell out the exact nature of the plot itself.  If you’re worried about the film seeming too corny for you, then that reservation is entirely valid.  There are some concepts in this film that may seem far-fetched (apes on horses, apes with guns, apes on horses with guns) but the movie plays it straight-faced that you inevitably accept these concepts as a natural evolution for the characters on screen.

It is probably a testament to Matt Reeves’ (Cloverfield, Let Me In) directing that he manages to craft a superb and intelligent science fiction movie on its own merits.  If you consider his body of work, he is a very smart director and he also has a pair of very smart screenwriters assisting him.  This movie was in good hands from the start.  The only gripe I have about the behind the scenes work is Michael Giacchino’s (Star Trek, The Incredibles) score.  While Giacchino has proven many times that he is a competent composer in his own right, it just sounded like he was running on autopilot in this film.  There were no passages that I could hum straight out of the theater and some times he just resorted to ambient droning.  It’s like Hans Zimmer snuck into the recording booth and inserted a couple lines from Batman Begins while snickering like a hooligan.  Sorry, Micoo, but Patrick Doyle had you beat there.

The main ape and protagonist of the story, Caesar, is played once again by motion-capture legend Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings, The Adventures of Tintin) and, dare I say it, he’s even better here than he was in the first movie.  I know that in 2011 he received a lot of Oscar buzz for his accurate performance as an ape, enhanced by some exceptional CGI.  This time, we see Caesar as a more brooding character, a little more open to the ways of the world.  He’s angrier, he’s more emotional, he’s added more words to his vocabulary, and Serkis’s acting and voice talents make it damn near impossible to believe that you’re not seeing an actual ape on the screen.

Same goes for all of the apes, for their mo-cap performers and the CGI are so well in tune that it surpasses the uncanny valley effect and looks straight up real.  These are some of the effects that transcend photoreality and trick your mind into trying to process what is real and what isn’t.  Caesar is played out right in front of your face and if Serkis almost received an Oscar nomination for the first film, then it would be a federal crime if he wasn’t nominated this year.

The human actors in this film, while good, are overshadowed by their ape counterparts.  Leads Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman (who’s not in the film all that much, actually) all play their roles as perfect as the script allows them to, with Clarke in particular getting some great character moments.  The dialogue between Clarke’s character and Caesar is one of many highlights that the film has to offer.

If you’re looking for action, then you’ve come to the right place.  The noise of guns and explosions was goddamn fantastic.  You could hear every clattering of shell casings, every echo in the distance, and every impact of debris.  All of the action is clean and doesn’t clutter up the screen and we also get one brutal fistfight at the end of the movie.  I started getting the shakes at that point because I was so invested.

I needed something to rid the bad taste of the latest Transformers movie out of my mouth and Rise of the Planet of the Apes did the trick.  I was actually flabbergasted at how good this movie was and I would most certainly go back for a second showing (if I had the time, at least).  If you saw the first one, go ahead and see this one right now.  If you haven’t seen the first one, go on and see it, then go see the sequel.  It is certainly refreshing to have a tentpole blockbuster film offer an experience that is high on emotion and doesn’t rely on mindless brawn to get its point across.  RPA gives me hope for the future yet.  Saying it now: best movie of the summer (so far).

Final Score: 96/100

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