As the second chapter of the rebooted series, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” fully develops the potentials shown in the previous film which breathed fresh air into the franchise with a surprising result. As a blockbuster film, the movie certainly has a number of well-made action scenes worthy of your ticket price, but it does far more than that; it gives us another engaging story to hold our attention, and we eventually come to see a touch of classic tragedy behind the inevitable clash of species depicted in the movie.
As implied during the epilogue scene of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”(2011), a virus lethal to human species was spread all over the world not long after a big revolt by our ape hero Caesar(Andy Serkis) and his fellow apes, who acquired considerable intelligence through ‘simian virus’. With no cure for this virus, lots of people died as the human society got collapsed as a result, and now there are only a small number of people who have managed to survive among the ruins of human civilization since the outbreak.
After settling in the forest near San Francisco, Caesar and other apes have been leading a nice tribal life during last 10 years. They made their own primitive community on the top of a mountain, and we see them hunting together with sticks and other tools like our ancestors did a long time ago. I wonder where they acquired those horses which all look like Black Beauty’s descendants from(was there a horse ranch near their area?), but I guess that is a small nod to that memorable moment in “Planet of the Apes”(1968).
Although they usually depend on sign language for communication, they can speak while teaching rudimentary English to the younger members of their tribe(another question: how could they reproduce that much during a short span of time?), and, as musing on their progress, Caesar and his close colleagues believe that they will continue to prosper as they have since their revolution. Caesar’s dear wife Cornelia(Judy Greer) is sick and probably has not many days to live(she is always attended by her, uh, apes-in-waiting while saying or expressing little to her husband), but they have two children they love, and his son Blue Eyes(Nick Thurston) may succeed him someday although this young ape still needs much to learn for standing up for himself as a future leader.
And then their peaceful existence is disrupted by a bunch of humans who come into their territory on one day. Malcolm(Jason Clarke) and others accompanying him mean no threat to Caesar and other apes; their community residing in the downtown area of San Francisco has been facing a serious energy crisis which will put them back to that dark, chaotic time, and they need to find and reactivate a water power plant in the apes’ territory for supplying electricity to their place.
At first, Caesar throws a hostile response to Malcolm and other humans mainly for calming down his more aggressive tribal members including Koba(Toby Kebbell), but he eventually accepts Malcolm’s sensible request, so it seems things will be worked out well for both sides. Malcolm and others are allowed to go to the water power plant and repair it with some help from the apes, and Caesar begins to trust Malcolm, who is as decent as a few human beings he knew in the past.
However, as we have seen from many stories about two different groups in hostile conflict, both Caesar and Malcolm soon find the situation going beyond their control as being swept by that. The humans in San Francisco, led by their de facto leader Dreyfus(Gary Oldman), are ready to invade into the apes’ territory with the weapons from a nearby military storage, and some of Caesar’s tribal members are also determined to get rid of humans. Both sides come to follow that destructive tribal mentality represented by ‘it’s us or them’, and, through his misjudgment and mistakes, Caesar comes to learn a bitter lesson as a consequence.
The director Matt Reeves, who did an exemplary remake job in “Let Me In”(2010), establishes well the dark, uncertain mood along with the accumulating tension amplified by Michael Giacchino’s uneasy dissonant score on the soundtrack. In contrast to that dizzy shaky camera approach in his previous film “Cloverfield”(2008), Reeves shows steadier handling of the action sequences during the climactic part of the film(there are at least two fabulous tracking shots which you have to see for yourself), and they are supported well by a good story which makes us 1) understand the motives of its major characters and 2) worry about what will possibly happen due to their clashing motives and 3) care a lot about not only its ape hero but also some of the other characters in the movie.
When I watched “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, I was surprised by how much I came to care about Caesar’s plight even though I knew well that he was a CGI character, and Andy Serkis’ performance was one of crucial elements which made Caesar into a compelling hero. Serkis, who may deserve a special Oscar someday as an actor who has been the soul of many memorable CGI characters during recent years, is more prominent here as a well-meaning leader who believes a little too much in his fellow apes, and he and the other actors provided convincing performances to be transformed into their vivid ape characters on the screen. The drama between Caesar and his son is familiar to the bone, but they do feel like real characters in their interactions, and their quiet conversation scene later in the movie is particularly effective thanks to that. It is also welcoming to see the various ape characters we met in the previous film, and I was reminded again of my small personal affection toward Maurice(Karin Konoval), a wise, gentle orangutan who slowly becomes a friend to Malcolm’s son Alexander(Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Not so surprisingly, the human characters are less distinctive in comparison as the apes steal the show. Besides Jason Clarke, who earnestly holds his place in opposite to Serkis, most of the actors including Gary Oldman and Keri Russell(she plays Malcolm’s doctor girlfriend) are stuck with simple characterization, but the solid screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback treats its human characters as an equal major part of the story, and that is one of the main reasons why its climax, which revolves around a high-rise building virtually ready for one of the oldest villain clichés, works on many levels.
Promising the next story to come before its end credits, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” successfully moves the franchise into more potentials as doing nearly everything a good sequel should do. I cared about the apes as well as the humans in the film, and, as observing that there is not much difference between these two species entangled with each other in their ugly conflict, I could not help but think of the last paragraphs from George Orwell’s novel “Animal Farm”. They are still lingering on my mind as I am reflecting on the movie now, and Caesar will probably understand why: “Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”