The Planet of the Apes series has to be one of the bleakest franchises out there–of the eight films in the series to date, none has what could be considered a happy ending (the closest we get is the studio-imposed ending to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes; the Blu-Ray restores the original, very, very dark ending), and the ending to the 1968 original is one of the most famous downers in all of cinema. Thankfully, Dawn does not let the series down; without spoiling anything, the denouement is anything but rosy.
But it’s not a long, bleak trudge to that point. Dawn is a compelling thriller and a thrilling action film, a triumph of special effects that may well be the best entry in the series to date.¹
Set 10 years after Rise of the PotA, the apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), have established a thriving community in the woods near San Francisco. The human population, decimated by the Simian Flu, is reduced to isolated pockets, with one group of a few hundred people living in what remains of San Francisco. Their fuel supply is rapidly dwindling, and a hydroelectric dam located within the apes’ territory is their only hope for restoring electricity. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) believes this requires the humans to form a truce with the apes, but this is threatened not only by the humans’ leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), but by Caesar’s intensely misanthropic lieutenant, Koba (Toby Kebbell).
The story of Dawn is quite simple, and therein lies a bit of a problem. At 130 minutes, there’s just not quite enough story to fill the time, and the film does drag just a bit here and there. Nothing major, but there are little bits of fat throughout the first two acts. The story is also very much a “middle-film” narrative–it sets up a sequel quite fully–and so the film does not pack as intense of a punch as it might have with a more definitive finale.
But that’s forgivable given how strong Dawn’s strengths are. Director Matt Reeves keeps the story firmly under control, keeping it down-to-earth without becoming dour. The tense fragility of the situation is felt from the start, as a mutual lack of trust between human and ape threatens to spill over into violence–which it does. And when the action commences, it’s galvanizing; there are large-scale battles and one-on-one brawls in the last act of the film, and they all deliver. It’s hard to discuss most of the set-pieces without giving away the story, but the ape-on-human and ape-on-ape violence is superbly handled.
And even considering the relative simpleness of the story, the script² is quite solid, a simple-but-effective examination of how mistrust and prejudice can cloud even the desire for survival. The dialogue is for the most part clear and reasonable, with one-liners and overt message-making left to a minimum. The only exception is the character of Carver (Kirk Acevedo), one of Malcolm’s colleagues, who’s so obnoxious and smug (and completely unreasonable), he passes into the realm of caricature. If a little more nuance were given to Carver’s cruelty, I’d be fine with it, but as it is, he’s a cartoon in a realistic context, and his presence is a distracting one (Dreyfus’ anti-ape prejudice is far more believable).
(Definite points to whoever devised the apes’ language, which is a mix of signs and grunts. It works and never draws too much attention to itself.)
When Rise was released, the calls for Andy Serkis to be recognized by the Academy for his mo-cap work (which had first cropped up when he played Gollum) were heard throughout the Internet, and even the studio got involved:
With Dawn raking in the good reviews and box-office receipts, it’s quite likely another campaign will be mounted, though if Serkis couldn’t manage a Supporting nomination, despite the acclaim, would he stand a snowball’s chance in Lead? More importantly, does he deserve to? Honestly, I’m not sure. No doubt, he gives a very strong performance, both verbally–delivering Caesar’s halting, fragmentary speech with conviction–and physically, moving for the most part like an ape, but just a hair beyond the simian norm. He’s convincing both as the conflicted leader and the devoted family man.
At the same time, though, how much of the performance is reliant on the CGI? I don’t know. There have been proposals for a new Oscar category honoring visual-effects-enhanced performances, and if such a one were instituted, I’d say Serkis should win a landslide. But in the regular Best Actor category…even now, he’d rank 5th place at best, and that’s only if I decided to swap him and Jude Law in Dom Hemingway (which…worse film, but arguably better performance). I don’t want to sound too down on his work, but in a competitive paradigm I’m not sure if it would hold up. Gollum would, but Gollum is Gollum.
Toby Kebbell (who was awesome in the otherwise mediocre RockNRolla) has received a lot of praise as the embittered, malevolent Koba³, and perhaps it’s only a greater measure of praise to say I had a hard time judging his work, because the special effects so completely transformed him into the scarred (from human experimentation) chimp. Koba is a scary S.O.B., driven by hate yet, at least initially, torn between his devotion to Caesar and his loathing of humanity. So good job, Mr. Kebbell.
The other ape actors are fine, though none really stand out (Nick Thurston as Caesar’s son Blue Eyes does, to a degree, but that might be just because he has more screen-time). Oh, Judy Greer played Caesar’s wife? That’s cool. Too bad she couldn’t go full Cheryl with the role (random thought: H. Jon Benjamin would have been a cool choice for Malcolm), but you can’t have everything.
As for the humans, they do generally strong work. I like Jason Clarke (he was really strong in Zero Dark Thirty), and he’s good as Malcolm, tough enough to be a survivor, yet thoughtful enough to be a man of peace. He anchors the film well. Gary Oldman has relatively little to do, but as noted, he does a good job of making his anti-ape prejudice come off believably. Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee (as Malcolm’s love interest and son, respectively) are adequate; Kirk Acevedo overdoes the douchiness as Carver, but that might be more a problem with the writing.
At the time, there were hopes that Rise would win Best Visual Effects (the inferior effects in Hugo won instead), and while I personally voted for the effects work in The Tree of Life, Rise would’ve been a good choice. Dawn, however…I’m really wondering what would win, if not this. (Interstellar? Since that has a shot at getting the Best Picture nom? I don’t know) Because the CGI here is, to put it bluntly, seamless. You don’t see the effects, you see the apes. You don’t see Serkis and Kebbell, you see Caesar and Koba. It’s a simply dazzling piece of work from start to finish, all the better because it so rarely draws attention to itself. I suppose the odd shot or two looks a bit phony (mostly where Caesar’s infant son is concerned), but if this doesn’t win the Oscar, it better lose to something transcendental.
Michael Seresin’s cinematography is strong, William Hoy and Stan Salfas’ editing is punchy (for the most part), and the sound mixing and especially effects are superlative–and kudos to James Chinlund’s production design, bringing the ruins of San Francisco and the village of the apes to life. But for me, the greatest kudos goes to Michael Giacchino’s score, one of the best scores in a year lacking in good ones. It’s at times bombastic, at times unsettling, at times witty (xylophones just sound witty), and it just enhances the picture at all times. A nod there would be welcome as well.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is pretty much everything I need a Planet of the Apes film to be: exciting, tragic, and respectful of my intelligence (there is one minor plot hole, but I don’t really feel like getting into it). It’s another solid blockbuster in a year fairly full of them.
¹Not the 1968 film? There are reasons for that. The clunky one-liners (“Human see, human do”), the grossly annoying character of Lucius…it’s compromised enough that I can’t call it the best. Not that lame humor and poorly-drawn characters don’t affect modern-day science-fiction, but that feeling of compromise is no longer par for the course.
²Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver.
³For those who don’t know, “Koba” was an early pseudonym of Joseph Stalin (Fun fact: “Joseph Stalin” is also a pseudonym, since his real name was Iosif Dzugashvili. Hey, I have to justify that Slavic Studies minor somehow.)