A machine-gun wielding angry ape, charging on horseback, spraying bullets at his human adversaries…it’s one of those images that’ll likely stay with you long after you’ve watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the terrific sequel to 2011’s James Franco-starring Rise of the Planet of the Apes. To be fair, there’s much by way of overwhelming imagery here, including an early scene in which a band of primates swinging from trees in a dense forest launches a coordinated attack on a herd of fleeing elk. It’s one of those clips straight out of a nature docu on National Geographic…except that it’s not. It’s a thrillingly designed sequence, achieved through a combination of visual effects and motion capture technology; a marvel of modern filmmaking.
Set ten years after the events of the previous film, Dawn opens in San Francisco again, where a simian flu epidemic has more or less wiped out the human species. The apes in the nearby woods however are thriving. Caesar (played by Andy Serkis via mo-cap) is the wise and brave leader of his race. And what a race this is! The primates have learned to read and write, and can communicate in sign language. Theirs is an evolved society, complete with an honor code (“Ape not kill ape”), and a nagging distrust of humans. No wonder both sides are taken aback, when Malcolm (a permanently mopey Jason Clarke) and a group of human survivors stumble into the ape colony.
As the leaders of both factions slowly establish a tentative truce, infighting and difference of opinions within their respective groups cause problems between man and beast. Caesar offers to help the humans, but Koba, his loyal general, is instinctively suspicious of them. The scenario is the same at the other end, where Malcolm’s boss (Gary Oldman in hammy mode) is dead against their aligning with the primates. Expectedly things come to boiling point soon enough, resulting in a violent humans-versus-apes showdown that involves bullets, blood, horse-riding apes, and even an army tank manned by a monkey!
The visual wizardry of the film aside, Cloverfield director Matt Reeves succeeds in making you care for his characters, both humans and apes. Caesar’s scenes with his grown-up son are emotionally wrought, and not hard to relate to for anyone who’s had difficulty getting through to a child. The script, rich in subtext, addresses big, important themes with surprising subtlety.
But it’s no surprise that it’s Andy Serkis’ pitch-perfect portrayal of Caesar that is the big beating heart of this film. From beneath layers of digital trickery, Serkis nevertheless serves up a soulful, heartfelt, and commanding performance that’ll stay with you for days. Other simian characters are memorable too, including Caesar’s ‘misunderstood’ son Rocket, and Koba, whose single-minded animosity towards humans is chilling.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is consistently engaging, and a film to be enjoyed on the big screen. It is a blockbuster in every sense of the word, offering big thrills and moments of great awe and wonder, yet it’s smart and full of feeling too. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.