2011 was a great year for movies and Rise of the Planet of the Apes was one of the biggest surprises of that year. Rise came a decade after Tim Burton's poorly received remake of Planet of the Apes, which essentially killed the franchise. When the 2011 reboot came around, confidence was not high and the August release date was not encouraging, but somehow, it ended up being one of the best movies of the year. It landed at #8 on my "Best of 2011" list and most critics were impressed with Andy Serkis' performance as Caesar and the terrific direction of Rupert Wyatt. Three years later, the movie still holds up and I knew that the sequel would have to be stellar to top its predecessor. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a good sequel, but not a great one. It's a much darker film and a much more thematically intense film, but I wouldn't actually say that it's better. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a very solid film with occasional moments of greatness, but it's too grim and messy to be a great film.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up ten years after the events of Rise. At this point, the human race has been mostly decimated and small bands of survivors across the planet are the only ones left. Meanwhile, the apes have set up a society with Caesar (Andy Serkis) as their leader. Caeser, Koba (Toby Kebbell), Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary) have created a civilization that is prospering without the interference of humans. However, that all changes when Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and a group of humans approach the home of the apes. There is instant conflict and tensions are high between the two groups. Caesar and Malcolm really don't want war, while Koba and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), one of the human leaders, are both weary of the opposing group. Games are played and the fate of both races is jeopardized when war is inadvertently started.
For years after Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight rocked theaters across the country, the majority of summer blockbusters were really nasty, dark affairs. That seems to be changing. Most of the big event films this year have taken a more light tone (the only major exception I can think of is Godzilla). Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not a light film. It's pitch-black from beginning to end. There is no humor, there is no big dumb ape who has no purpose besides providing comic relief. And in some ways, that's a good thing. I was glad to see a blockbuster that took itself seriously and wanted to tell an important, socially relevant story. However, even The Dark Knight had the Joker. The Empire Strikes Back was still a fun film. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes confuses "going darker" with "being completely joyless" at times. While I didn't want Marvel levels of stupidity, I would have liked to have a bit of fun. This itself is not the problem, but it leads to many problems throughout the film. Nonetheless, it's a good addition to the franchise and promises exciting things to come.
One of the more interesting steps that Fox took in continuing this franchise was completely revamping the cast. Although James Franco has a brief cameo (kind of), no human character from Rise returns for this outing. It's all new. Jason Clarke is Malcolm, our lead human character. He survived the Simian Flu outbreak with his wife (Keri Russell) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and is just trying to keep them alive. Dreyfus is a strong leader who feels a responsibility to protect the survivors and San Francisco and is willing to do anything to keep them safe. One of the more interesting things about the film is how we see the parallels between Malcolm and Dreyfus and Caesar and Koba. Malcolm and Caesar encourage peace while Dreyfus and Koba are willing to risk war to protect their people. When I was watching the film, I didn't really notice, but looking back on it, that aspect is one of the more ingenious parts about the film.
One of the amazing things about the first film was the way you, as an audience member, were able to connect with the apes and the humans. In Rise, I cared about the fate of Will Rodman (Franco) and I cared about Caesar. In this film, it's more of a generalization. You care about the humans and you care about the apes. None of the human characters were particularly interesting, though Malcolm is a person that I think most audience members will relate to. However, none of the others are particularly compelling or interesting. Gary Oldman does a great job as Dreyfus, but his character isn't all that complex. His intentions are clear from the moment the apes show up.
The ape characters are the ones that really capture our hearts. Andy Serkis is brilliant once again as Caesar. It's a terrific, emotional performance and although we will see better performances later in the year, an Oscar nomination is not out of the question. Toby Kebbell also makes for a menacing villain as Koba. He's a frightening character and he's played with a strong intensity by Kebbell. And I just love Maurice and Rocket. Karin Konoval and Terry Notary are absolutely fantastic in those roles.
The performances are good, but Matt Reeves is also a brilliant director who's able to bring tension and levity to this film. Most of the problems I have with the movie lie with the script, so I'm not going to blame Reeves for the occasionally wonky pacing or the frustrating ending. Instead, I'm going to praise the heck out of his filmmaking abilities.
I hated Cloverfield. Absolutely hated it. But I still knew that Matt Reeves could do great things. With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, he proves it. From the opening frame to the final image of Caesar's eyes, this is Reeves' vision and it's executed splendidly. The post-apocalyptic visuals are fantastic and the tension is present throughout. Also, Reeves makes great use of Michael Giacchino's brilliant score, which underlines the film throughout. Reeves did a terrific job on this film and I really think that he'll get to do even more in the third film if this is a hit.
The script is where I run into problems. Some critics have called this an inconsequential film and while some scenes are tedious and slightly pointless, this is a very important chapter in the apes franchise. But this movie needs to be a half hour longer. This film clocks in at 130 minutes, which is long, but not that long. I wouldn't have minded an additional thirty or forty minutes to finish the story. I'm doing my best to avoid spoilers here, but it's sort of impossible. Let's just say that we learn something is coming and that a fight is going to go down, but the movie ends before the fight can began. It drove me crazy and I truly believe that this is one of the most frustrating movie cliffhangers ever. All we need is one big fight scene, but instead, we're forced to wait two more years to see it.
The pacing is also a little choppy. The film gets off to an excellent start and is a perfect movie for a while. However, the screenwriters use this electrical dam as a MacGuffin to get relations between the apes and the humans started and none of it is really all that interesting. Plus, the two groups change their mind on whether they want to co-exist several times. It gets really annoying. There are also long stretches where nothing really happens. There is some character development, but some of it felt unnecessary. Also- why is the big action scene in the middle of the film? That's really not how it's supposed to work.
All of the negativity in the last few paragraphs might make you think that I didn't like the film. That would be very, very wrong. I enjoyed this movie a lot and I think that there's a lot to like about it. The action scenes are astonishing. One in particular is incredibly intense and visceral and one of the best of the year. The visuals and performances are amazing and the parallel between the apes and humans is haunting and interesting. I just wish that this film weren't so much of a downer. Also, at times the film will get really intense for a moment and then it will slow almost to a stop. It's like a car that goes down 90 down the highway then all of a sudden slams on the breaks. It works sometimes, but not always.
In the end, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not a perfect film. And that's okay. Not every film has to be a cinematic masterpiece. Dawn is still a really good movie with moments of greatness. It sets up a third installment that should be rather thrilling and it strengthens the audience's connection to the apes. I just wish that it was longer and that some of the slow moments were a little bit more interesting. Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable film that has lofty ambitions and succeeds on most fronts. It's definitely worth checking out.
THE FINAL GRADE: B (7.3/10)