by David Robinson, Movie Reviewer
Now available on DVD, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the latest entry in a series that dates back to 1968. Its immediate predecessor, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011) considerably updated the original situation. (The movie also underwent a remake in 2001.) I hesitate to admit it, given the venerable track record of this ongoing epic, but this was my first full-go experience of the cycle. (Why would one resist going to see a movie about apes? Don’t ask.) This one, directed by Matt Reeves and featuring some spectacular visual work by cinematographer Michael Seresin and production designer James Chinlund, has won some critical praise that had eluded its ancestors.
The first half or so of this entry deserves those kudos. The action begins 10 years after a group of lab apes escape to the Muir Woods north of San Francisco. The test subjects for a cure for Alzheimer’s, they have become the carriers of a deadly virus nicknamed “Simian flu.” The plague has spread throughout the world, all but eliminating humankind, one remnant of which is holed up in the ruins of the City by the Bay. At the film’s outset, a few of them have driven into the forest, searching for a hydroelectric dam to reactivate, thus supplying electricity to the city and, possibly, enabling them to establish radio contact with other survivors.
When one of the men panics and shoots an ape, the apes surround and capture the human expedition, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke). He negotiates with the apes’ leader, Caesar, a lab ape raised largely by humans who has evolved to speak English. As played by the gifted Andy Serkis, with the aid of motion capture photography and CGI, Caesar is the focus of interest in the film. As his name suggests, he is something of a tragic figure, one who trusts his fellows too much, resulting in a destructive war.
This leader’s military leader, Koba (Toby Kebbel), has been physically and psychologically scarred by the scientists and is bent on revenge. He challenges Caesar’s trust of the humans and, eventually, causes armed warfare to break out. (One of the movie’s best moments comes when Koba captures his first submachine gun, fooling the mocking humans with some stupid monkey tricks.) He also schemes to turn Caesar’s son against him, helping him lead an attack against the human fortress.
This redoubt is captained by one Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, largely wasted here), with Malcolm’s woman friend, CDC veteran and medic Ellie (Keri Russell). Ellie and widower Malcolm’s artistic son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), have used their skills to help Malcolm establish enough of a working relationship with Caesar to get the dam working again. But the fragile peace falls apart, the trust between the species broken by the presence of guns. (Charlton Heston, star of the original “Planet,” would not approve of this one’s politics.)
All of this occupies the film’s first two-thirds, which have enough thematic content and cinematic spectacle to engage. After the fighting breaks out, however, the action devolves into a standard war movie or, possibly, cowboys and Indians flick. The dialogue, devoid of wit and humor but making some clever use of the apes’ sign language, sinks into cliché. (E.g., about a wounded ape, “How is he?” “He’s strong, but he’s lost a lot of blood.”) Conversely, the work with the color palette turns genuinely fascinating in the latter going, subtler where the plot is anything but, inventive where the action turns formulaic.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is rated “PG-13” primarily for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action. Its ending clearly sets up for yet another successor. I hope this one does well enough that Reeves, already set as screenwriter and director of the projected 2016 release, follows through on the promise of the movie’s first half and avoids the pitfalls of the rest. If so, maybe I’ll get to go ape again. (Sorry, I held off as long as I could.)