Ten years after an ape named Caesar (Andy Serkis) led a revolt on the Golden Gate Bridge, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” picks up the story in the prequel franchise of “Planet of the Apes.”
Apes and humans find themselves simply trying to survive in a world where a plague has wiped out the vast majority of mankind. Riding horseback, speaking broken English and learning to read/write, the apes have begun to grow into their reputation in the original franchise. Meanwhile the humans are living in the ruins of San Francisco and losing more resources by the day. The leaders of this colony, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), discover they might be able to save the colony by restoring power to a nearby dam. Unfortunately for them, the dam happens to be located in the ape territory run by Caesar.
While the plot is very simple, what makes the story interesting is the development of these two colonies and their interactions with one another. The apes are mesmerizing, of course, due to the motion capture technology utilized in the film. Andy Serkis does amazing work as Caesar, but the whole cast of stunt actors playing the apes bring a new level of life to the process. Given that the apes are not speaking full English all of the time, the personality quirks of their movement does a lot more for the audience than rubber suits or basic CGI.
As for the human characters, they’re really not all that interesting by comparison. The 3 most interesting people are Malcolm, Dreyfus and Ellie (Keri Russell). Clarke, in the lead role of Malcolm, plays the curious observer trying to bring about peace between the species. I’m not sure if it was the best casting decision, but he’s serviceable in the role. Gary Oldman lives up to his reputation as the more militant leader of the human colony. While I would have loved to have seen more screen time for his character, he delivers a couple of very powerful scenes. Russell has a lot less to work with as the lead female, but she does what she can with the role. Probably the biggest surprise from the cast is how stinkin’ tall Kodi Smit-McPhee has become at the ripe age of 18. It was only 4 years ago he played a much smaller child in “Let Me In.”
With Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) taking over for Rupert Wyatt in the director’s chair, it seemed like there were a lot of new possibilities for the camerawork in this film. Though he mostly plays it safe, there were a handful of really cool shots. The most popular of these is a sequence where the camera is attached to the top of a rotating tank, allowing for the viewer to get the full view of an ongoing battle. Another nice shot involves a long take where the camera is following Clarke around during the aftermath of the film’s big human/ape battle.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” has some remarkable visual effects between the apes and the night battle scene, but something that really helped the film were the characterizations of its villains. With these species colliding in a post-apocalyptic setting, black and white bad guys aren’t nearly as interesting as bad guys who you can identify with. Of course, people in the film make wrong or right decisions that push them closer to hero or villain, but we can at least understand their reasoning and perhaps even sympathize with them.
A mild improvement on its predecessor, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a quality summer blockbuster that provides more than just pretty lights and booming explosions.