Summer School: 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' (2014)
Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.
Rewatching Rise of the Planet of the Apes didn't much improve my opinion of that movie, but I came around a bit more on the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second time through. I'm still not ready to proclaim it brilliant, as so many critics and fans have, but I think it's a more successful addition to the Apes franchise, telling the kind of story that Rise should have gotten to much earlier. The plague that was implied in the closing credits of Rise has wiped out most of humanity (depicted in an effective opening montage that I had kind of forgotten about when I criticized the handling of this plot point in Rise), and a decade later the apes have built their own little civilization, assuming humans to be extinct. They're wrong, though, and the movie puts the burgeoning ape homeland in conflict with the surviving remnants of humanity (at least in the greater San Francisco area).
Much more so than Rise, Dawn evokes the original Apes movies, particularly Conquest and Battle. The ape settlement looks similar to the collection of treehouses in Battle, and the fight between the apes and humans recalls that movie's climax, on a much grander scale. And the theme of humans exploiting apes returns from Conquest, articulated here more effectively than it was in Rise, even though that movie took place before the collapse of civilization. None of the human characters from Rise return (presumably they all died in the plague), and while I'm not sad to see James Franco gone (although he does appear in a bit of archival footage), the replacement humans aren't all that compelling. Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee do their best as the sympathetic humans who want to work with Caesar and the apes, but they're a little bland. Gary Oldman is a bit more charismatic, and I appreciated that his character wasn't just a one-dimensional warmonger, but he disappears for long stretches of the movie, only returning when he's needed to move the plot forward.
The real stars of the movie are the apes, led by the returning Caesar, played again via motion capture by Andy Serkis. Caesar is challenged by Koba (Toby Kebbell), another former lab animal who had a smaller role in Rise. Their conflict is similar to the one between Caesar and Aldo in Battle, although Koba is more devious than Aldo, and he doesn't have the chance to give long speeches because the apes in this movie can only speak a few words (and only a few of them can even do that). While the commitment to semi-realistic development is admirable (it's somewhat jarring in Battle when suddenly all apes speak perfect English), watching the apes communicate almost entirely via subtitled sign language is a bit frustrating, especially during the opening 10 minutes of the movie before any humans show up. The motion-capture actors do a lot within the limitations of the (accomplished) special effects, but allowing them to speak would help deepen and differentiate the characters.
Still, once the movie gets past the setup, director Matt Reeves delivers on the more action-oriented story, and it's hard to be bored by a movie that features apes riding horses and wielding machine guns. There are some pretty impressive action sequences and one great shot with the camera in a fixed position on a spinning machine-gun turret atop a tank, as Koba sprays the battlefield with bullets. The way that belligerent bigots can trick even well-intentioned leaders into war is the kind of bleak theme that fits with the series' overall pessimistic view of human nature, and the filmmakers don't look away from the uglier aspects of war. The movie ends on a more hopeful note than Rise (which isn't hard since that movie ended by killing nearly the entire human race), although the brief moment of calm is just a short respite before the arrival of all-out war in the next movie.