3 ½ out of 4 stars
The previous announcement of a prequel to Planet of the Apes caused a bit of head scratching, though the film managed some success. To continue the prequel into another chapter would take some painstaking care with character and direction. Matt Reeves accomplishes this and more with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a stunning addition to the Apes canon that combines technical triumphs with his singular skill as a genre director.
The intelligent ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) has formed an ape colony in the woods outside of San Francisco, unaware that a Simian Flu has spread throughout the entire world killing humans by the millions. Led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell), a group of human scouts from a San Francisco survival colony stumble onto the apes and inadvertently break years of silent peace. With some success, Malcolm attempts reconciliation with Caesar in the hope that he will allow the humans to reactivate a dam in ape territory that will restore power to San Francisco. But the ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) sees Caesar and Malcolm’s relationship as an act of treason and takes matters into his own ruthless hands.
Director Reeves (Cloverfield and Let Me In) has a knack for slow burn tension as well as a skillful hand at directing actors. He goes above and beyond here, and should be commended for executing a carefully rendered picture of two completely different worlds with much in common. Reeves’s hints at possible outcomes between the humans and apes always keep us guessing, a truly remarkable feat considering most already know where all of this leads. And the apes are mesmerizingly rendered from a directorial standpoint as well as a CGI one (ignore the horribly rendered bear…), using barely even a word and mostly sign language to show relationships.
Reeves also manages to remain faithful to the classic Apes films, working with composer Michael Giacchino (Ratatouille and Up), cinematographer Michael Seresin (Midnight Express and Angela’s Ashes), and the CGI and creature design team to solidify that the action on screen not only leads to the events of the original Planet of the Apes, but the rusty details and lush designs of it as well. In particular, the art direction is outstanding and attention to detail between ape and human colonies feels thought through for utility as well as dramatic design. Reeves deserves endless commendation for his work with his entire team.
The main downfall of this film lies in the writing, though even the actors and director manage to rise above it. Screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback (too many cooks in the kitchen?) have created an intriguing premise that always keeps the audience guessing. And they do create very natural dialogue from a syntax standpoint, but unfortunately too much of it is bogged down in exposition to ever feel real. More interestingly: whether purposeful or not, the human characters feel quite two-dimensional in comparison to the apes. This choice manages to place the humans and apes on more even footing and never puts one group over the other dramatically. One cannot fault the writers for this choice thanks to its outcome, though it still feels sloppy.
The film has been extremely well cast and all give strong performances. Clarke creates a strong emotional anchor, coloring Malcolm with hints of fear and inquisitiveness that allow his relationship with Caesar never to feel false. Russell makes the most out of a fairly puny role, creating sympathy and curiosity for someone who has lost and gained much. Kodi Smit-McPhee rapidly became one of the most reliable young actors of the new millennium. Here, as Malcolm’s son, he uses his observant acting style to its full potential. In particular, his interactions with Maurice, well played by motion performer Karin Konoval, provide insight into what might have been between apes and humans.
The antagonist human actors are less successful, mainly because of writing. Kirk Acevedo plays a stupid, insensitive character that rings false throughout. His character’s contrivances simply act to keep him in the fray, of course, but Acevedo still struggles to maintain a sense of moderation. And the incredible Gary Oldman is just wasted in a thankless role that calls for little more than insensitivity himself.
It should be mentioned that Andy Serkis has top billing here, which says a lot about the direction film is headed. Serkis gives a searing performance that outdoes his previous work. Caeasar has gained wisdom from the medical trials, of course, but Serkis has imbued Caesar with such a sense of careful consideration with every decision he makes. You see the gears turning as he struggles between the interests of the tribe and the humans he cannot trust yet cannot fault. With the help of the CGI team, Serkis manages a simply flawless performance.
In a rare case, the script can be surmounted. Strong actors, both motion capture and in the flesh, rise above here with the intelligent design and technical groups to create an emotionally resonant, still allegorically sound chapter in a beloved franchise. Director Reeves took previously well-crafted cinema and created something singularly inspiring. He and his team’s efforts cannot be missed.
Mark McCarver was born and raised in Houston, Texas and has been involved in theater and film since he was a kid. He spent the past few years acting and directing across Texas before moving to Washington, DC in the fall of 2012 to get a taste of the East Coast’s entertainment industry. Mark holds a BA in Drama from Trinity University and trained at the Syracuse University – London Drama Program and Shakespeare’s Globe. He is a company member with Half Mad Theatre in Washington.