In a time when most action movies seem to have no heart, soul or intelligence, leave it to the one that features talking apes as its central characters to show everybody else how it’s done.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, much like its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is no mere attempt to simply cash in on nostalgia for the Charlton Heston original. (We all agree that the Tim Burton remake didn’t happen.) Thanks to the advances in performance-capture technology and the consistently amazing performances of Andy Serkis, the new films are deeper, richer and more thought-provoking than you might imagine.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes contains plenty of heart-racing action, but for once that is in service of a compelling story.
Dawn takes place 10 years after the events of Rise, and the vast majority of the world’s human population has been wiped out thanks to a simian flu epidemic. Meanwhile, a large contingent of apes, led by Caesar (Serkis), has developed quite the advanced society in the wilderness north of San Francisco.
When humans struggling to survive in the city stumble upon the colony in their search for alternate power sources, both sides instantly become wary and distrustful of the other. And once that fuse is lit, neither side is capable of putting it out, no matter how much cooler heads try to prevail.
What performance capture accomplishes that the previous iterations of Planet of the Apes couldn’t is allowing audiences to completely believe in the ability of apes to communicate on a variety of levels. And because it’s so easy to do so, that allows us to invest in their relationships, which is crucial for selling various plot points.
Director Matt Reeves and the trio of writers also do well in that they don’t turn the film into an “us vs. them” scenario. They take pains to show that the two sides could co-exist peacefully were it not for a select few who ignore the common good and react irrationally, whether out of fear, anger or other negative emotions.
And because neither side is all good or all bad, the action scenes offer an intriguing tension. We can see that war is inevitable, and yet rather than bloodlust, there’s only hope that the battles can be stopped before they go too far.
The nuances of performance capture can make it easy to dismiss the contributions of the actors who bring the apes to life. But Serkis, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer and others deliver performances that are just as good, if not better, as those who get to play humans.
Speaking of, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman and Kodi Smit-McPhee all make for compelling human characters. It would be easy to overplay scenes in a movie like this, but they collectively keep the movie grounded emotionally.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes contains plenty of heart-racing action, but for once that is in service of a compelling story instead of covering for the lack of one. Combine that with a slew of great performances and you have a summer blockbuster that actually deserves to be one.