There’s a moment at the midpoint of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, asurprisingly nuanced and compelling sequel to the equally excellent 2011 franchise reboot, when you catch yourself caring about what happens to a collection of computer-generated creatures. At that second, without warnning, you say to yourself, “Now THAT’S movie magic,” and it truly is.
The humans on display are either hateful, or a hindrance, and the story is just one big Empire Strikes Back setup for (one imagines) a rip-roaring third installment, yet you realize that director Matt Reeves has indeed managed the near impossible. He’s taken actors and greenscreen, computer generated realism and the amazing agility of Andy Serkis, and created a timeless piece of speculative fiction that satisfies both as a summer popcorn experience and a serious socio-ecological commentary.
For those who remember how Rise ended, it’s been ten years since the Simian Flu began decimating the human population. Caesar (Serkis) and the rest of his ape clan, including wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and son, are all living in the Redwoods outside of San Francisco. They hunt, study speech and the alphabet, and wonder if they will ever come in contact with people ever again.
Suddenly, a group of individuals, including a man named Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and a CDC doctor (Keri Russell), are caught wandering through the forest. Initially, Caesar does nothing, much to the ire of his man-hating advisor Koba (Toby Kebbell). When the leader of a nearby human colony, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), demands access to the area, it sets up a tense situation which can only lead to one outcome — all-out confrontation, and war.
Like a good novel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes draws you in slowly. It builds layers, taking time for subplots and ancillary ideas while keeping us clearly on the path towards its explosive ending. At the core is the obvious “us vs. them” which seems to suggest a number of contemporary issues (immigration, race relations, the environment) but it’s to Reeves’ credit that he never goes overboard on message. Instead, he bathes his film in the dark depression of its post-apocalyptic backdrop while turning a bunch of animated elements into living, breathing, characters we care for. This isn’t to say that the humans here are all one-dimensional. Instead, they offer up many facets while never once letting go of their fear of extinction. You can see it in their eyes, always glassy, always on the verge of end-of-days tears.
Indeed, the eyes play a major role in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. When Serkis’ Caesar demands calm from his agitated family (he’s agreed to let the “humans work”), Koba counters by pointing to his many laboratory/uprising wounds and scars. “Human’s work… human’s work” he repeats, the pain palpable in his face. Similarly, when this rebellious member of the tribe sneaks into San Francisco to size up the opposition, his usually volcanic temper is replaced by a fake joy and goofiness, the better to get the soldiers to drop their guard and gawk at the “stupid monkey.”
Unlike the original 1968 film, which saw actors inhabit then cutting edge makeup, Dawn is legitimately about real apes (genetically altered, but still very much like their jungle brethren). Watching Reeves and his technical crew breathe life into them is one of this film’s many obvious joys.
By the end, when we see how misunderstanding and misplaced trust come to claim their stake in the true end of the world (or perhaps, better stated, the end of “a” world), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes becomes much more than a summer season spectacle. Like all good serious science fiction, it inspires as many inquiries as ideas. Filmmaking this good is why movies became the popular entertainment they are today. Leaving bombast behind for more personal, introspective beats, this undeniable achievement is the very definition of epic.