Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Twentieth Century Fox
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the highly anticipated sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). I saw the movie before reading Todd McCarthy’s review in The Hollywood Reporter, where he sums it up with: “Dawn is to Rise of the Planet of the Apes what Empire Strikes Back is to Star Wars.” In fact, I was thinking this the whole time I was watching the movie (when I wasn’t so engrossed in the story and the action that I forgot that I was supposed to be thinking about a review).
So what makes this such a damn good movie? Characterization. And story. Since this is part of a prequel series to the original Planet of the Apes (1968), it is intriguing to see how the apes start to organize, form a civilization, and speak. The first encounter between apes and humans is jaw-dropping. The plot is pretty straightforward and a bit contrived in places – is this particular dam really the only way to restore electricity to San Francisco? Sociologically, it seems plausible: a series of unfortunate misunderstandings and a bit of deceitful mayhem by an angry few blow up into a major feud with no forgiveness possible.
Overall the special effects and action scenes are excellent and the 3D animation is subtle but effective. You feel the intensity and the pain and anguish of the characters, something that many latter day movies lack in the overly CGI world.
Andy Serkis as Ceasar is incredibly convincing. He’s not playing a human in an electronic apesuit – he’s playing an ape that is becoming more and more aware of what it means to be an ape. The result is by turns wonderful and chilling. The entire cast deserves credit for bringing the full range of primate emotions to life with nothing spared.
There is a lot to ingest in the subtext and in the nods to previous films and great works of science fiction. Every scene has at least a hint at some sociopolitical commentary — whether about guns, racism, animal welfare, religion, or the atrocities of war — and many embedded references to past masters to keep geeks happy. Even the music invokes parallels by incorporating themes from the original Jerry Goldsmith score and elements from classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey (who could forget those choruses when the apes encounter the monolith… and Strauss swelling during the hog kill scene?)
The movie succeeds in pulling heartstrings. You want to love the apes, but you feel for the humans, and in the end, we realize that we are all the same, but it is no a happy realization. Like the first Star Wars trilogy, this is setting things up for an epic showdown. Let’s just hope the third installment doesn’t have any ape-woks.