The plot of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes goes a little like this: monkeys live in forest, humans live in city. Most humans hate monkeys because they think monkeys made millions of other humans die. Some humans know that it was in fact a few other humans who made millions of humans die- not monkeys. Monkeys do not like humans because humans do not like monkeys. When humans trespass in monkey forest, monkeys get angry. Monkeys retaliate by trespassing in human city, and humans get scared. Humans try to ask monkeys for help. And so on and so forth…
This may seem simple, and that’s just what 20th Century Fox want you to think it is- a simple film. The trailers boast HUGE ACTION SCENES and LOTS OF HUMAN CHARACTERS, but fail to show what makes this film (and its predecessor, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes) so special- its sophistication, its intensity and its heart.
Andy Serkis, who has over the past 15 years proven himself to be one of Hollywood’s finest actors, gets his first top billing here, in the role of Caesar, the ape adopted by James Franco (who is, ten years after the events of Rise, nowhere to be seen), but who later started the simian revolution. Now, he is the leader of the thousand-strong ape community living in the Muir Woods outside San Francisco, and the magnificent opening scene sees him lead his comrades into battle with a pack of deer and a very big bear. Like all great leaders, Caesar is charismatic (the most charming blockbuster lead of the Summer?) and, at heart, a family man. As the film begins, his second child is born, and his eldest son (Nick Thurston) struggles with supporting his father’s controversial ruling decisions. Caesar and the orang-utan Maurice (Karin Konoval, returning after Rise) ponder if there are any humans left alive, minutes before Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and a band of San Franciscan survivors show up at the apes’ home. Clarke is Malcolm, the de facto leader of the survivors, who answers only to Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus. Along with his partner and son (Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee), he is attempting to access a damn located within the apes’ part of the forest which will provide the human community with much-needed power. His relationship with his son looks set to be mirrored with Caesar and his son’s, but is never really explored. In fact, none of the human characters are ever given much depth, and the presence in particular of Oldman’s character- whose motivations become extremely vague in the final act- is somewhat questionable. That said, Smit-McPhee’s short-lived friendship with Maurice, and their reading of a book together, is one of the film’s most moving moments.
Good human characters are not necessary in Matt Reeves’ film, however, as Serkis, Thurston, Konoval and Toby Kebbell excel in their motion-capture performances as the apes. As the audience can see genuine warmth in Caeser’s eyes, so too can they see a lust for power in the eyes of Koba (Kebbell), the second most influential ape and the cause of the human-ape tension’s eventual eruption. Serkis and Kebbell work brilliantly together, and when they fight each other brutally, it’s easy to forget that these are two men in leotards rolling around on the floor.
The cinematography (by Prisoner of Azkaban DOP Michael Seresin) is at times spectacular, with the contrast between the apes’ bodies and blazing fire being a particular visual highlight. Michael Giacchino provides a beautiful and haunting a score as he always does, with hints of Lost and Jeff Russo’s work on the Fargo miniseries. As for Reeves, who takes over from Rupert Wyatt, who directed Rise, he does a great job of keeping the story as fresh as it could possibly, giving the humans enough screen time to be differentiated from the apes in their behaviour, and pulling off some of the most interesting filmmaking tactics of the Summer- for example, a long, single take of Malcolm running through an abandoned building as bullets fly from all sides which is very reminiscent of Children of Men.
Andy Serkis didn’t get an Oscar for The Lord of the Rings or King Kong, and he probably won’t get one for this, but for his captivating, heartbreaking performance as Caesar, with pain and love on his mo-cap ape face in equal measure, the least you can do is support this brilliantly-directed, brilliantly-acted film.