Since the original “Planet of the Apes” back in 1968, the sequels have tried to replicate it’s significance and meaning. Well, all except “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, which had a bigger focus on plot and narrative than actual meaning. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is incredibly significant, far more so than the original ever was, and that is saying something. There are so many different messages within the film that I couldn’t sit here and tell you about all of them, and the likelihood is that I’ve forgotten some of them or just not even picked up on them. It’s not a film where the meaning is well hidden behind avant garde film making, that’s not to say that “Dawn” isn’t a smart and delightfully artistic film, because it is. It’s just the case that you would have to be a real troglodyte not to take anything at all away from the film. I have a lot to say, because “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is, and I believe always will be; a culturally, historically and aesthetically significant film. I do adamantly implore you to watch “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” before this as it is also very good and it would be a shame for me to spoil it in this review, which I will.
“Dawn” follows on a good few years after the end of “Rise”, enough time at least for San Francisco to become less of a concrete jungle, but more of a jungle with concrete. The human race has been almost wiped out (as far as we know, the film doesn’t show us anywhere except the San Francisco Colony of humans) by a virus known as the “Simian Flu”. The disease led to widespread panic and riots, and the only humans left are presumed to be genetically immune.The apes that escaped to the Redwoods after storming across the Golden Gate Bridge in “Rise” have set up a tribal civilisation there, and the humans are unaware of this. Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads the apes and he has a peaceful agenda, he is harsh but fair. Koba (Toby Kebbell) has nothing but hate for the humans. When the humans begin to explore the Redwoods in search of the hydroelectric dam that will provide them with the power they need to contact the rest of the planet, they discover the apes and react with panic and violence. Caesar keeps the violence contained and asks the humans to go. Now that both sides are aware of each other, tensions rise as the humans need to explore the ape territory and work on the dam though they have been banned from the Redwoods. Peace and war hang in the balance as relations between the apes and humans fluctuates, and the outliers of each species risk their very way of life with their war like tendencies.
The humans this time around have better characterisation but it’s still not quite perfect, the individual characters of the humans are the weakest part of the film. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is the main human and he is essentially the nice guy. He wants to work with the apes and doesn’t see them as animals like Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman). His son Alexander (Kodi-Smit McPhee) takes after him in this regard and has innate respect for the apes with the help of his Father’s guidance. Carver (Kirk Acevedo) is the outlier, he continually abuses the privileges the apes have bestowed upon the humans, allowing them to enter their home and potentially make themselves more of a threat by doing so. One must remember that a majority of the apes freed were from the Gen-Sys laboratories and were therefore experimented on, the ones that weren’t were abused by Dodge in the last film. They have seen nothing but the bad side of the human race and Koba represents this fear of humans greatly. He has been taught by humans to hate and nothing else, to paraphrase Caesar.
Koba eventually becomes a character you sympathise with, he has been tortured by humans and it shows. He speaks about how the apes must defend themselves and show their strength by attacking. Most of what he holds to be the right thing to do, does seem like the right thing to do. Then, so does Caesar’s approach. The film isn’t black and white, there is a grey area when it comes to the right decisions and morality. The political tensions within the apes especially is incredibly compelling stuff. You’ll watch Caesar and Koba discuss what to do and present each side with valid points, and if you’re anything like me you’ll find some of what you believe rests with each. Make no mistake, you want Caesar’s ideals of peace between apes and humans to be true, but when we see the way the humans are, what they do and how they prepare for war, you can’t help but agree with Koba too.
The relationship between the apes and humans is incredibly fragile, and you’ll always feel that way too. It seems whenever ground is made towards peace, like when the apes save the humans from a dam explosion, there is always something that keeps it just out of reach, like immediately afterwards finding the humans have smuggled guns. It’s infuriating watching the humans and the apes consistently make efforts to ruin the chances for peace. I’ve never in my whole life felt so tense for so long in a film. Watching the politics play out and the relations change is fascinating. One of the reasons it is so well done is because the apes are incredibly well realised. I didn’t realise CGI had the power to achieve that “wow” factor films like “Django Unchained” do with practical effects now. When combined with motion capture, it looks real, and that isn’t an exaggeration. I can’t fault the way the apes look, it is outstanding. Andy Serkis should finally get the Oscar he deserves for his contribution to acting, and he should be recognised for what he’s done to turn motion capture into a widely accepted form of acting. Each ape is easily identifiable from the other, and this isn’t necessarily done with faces (though it is to some extent). Each ape has physical characteristics that mean they stand out from the rest and make it easy for us to identify the key players. Obviously I would prefer it if I could tell the apes apart purely by their faces, but humans aren’t naturally equipped with facial recognition for any species but our own. To make a genuine complaint with regards to that is a completely needless nitpick, so the way Matt Reeves gets around this is simple yet never feels contrived.
Caesar is a very good leader and he feels like he’s changed in more ways than just his increase in IQ. As a leader of a significant group of various apes, he has to be cold, he is harsh but fair to put it simply. He never feels unreasonable in his leadership and is a perfect character that is given depth by the conflicting emotions of his tribe and his son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). Blue Eyes has to deal with his opinions siding more with Koba and the fact that Koba is essentially the enemy of his father. When battle begins later on, you’ll see his ambivalence as a result of war tearing him apart emotionally. He is an ape of few words but you can’t help but feel for him and see how he represents how the youth of the world is perhaps most affected by the war their superiors start. To quote Albert Einstein: “Older men start wars, but younger men fight them.”
Have I touched on how good the cinematography is? Well it can be brilliant, and this is noticeable early on when the apes swing through the trees as the camera looks up. They blot out the sky with their frames and look more like shadows than anything. Later on there is a spectacular scene as Koba jumps onto and seizes a tank, the camera pans around to show the devastation caused by the war he started. It really has to be taken in and appreciated and resembles the wonderful car scene from “Children of Men”. Koba becomes the main antagonist inevitably and you’ll despise him when he does, but I found myself most unsettled by the fact I truly sympathised with him earlier for a long time, even though his ideals inevitably led to war. It goes to show the ignorance some have (and yes I include myself in this) with regards to war and it’s effects. It isn’t a solution, it never is a solution. “Dawn” screams this to the heavens with unprecedented weight. I can’t stress enough how important what it has to say is.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is an absolute must see, of the films I’ve seen so far, it is the best of 2014. If you go and see “Transformers: Age of Extinction” instead of this, I will disown you as a member of the human race. Have I seen “Age of Extinction”? No, but I’ll quote Ray from “In Bruges” here when I say “I know it’s gonna be a shithole”.