What a relief – a summer blockbuster with substance has finally arrived! After the dopey Spiderman and forgettable X-Men installments, I was beginning to doubt that we’d see such a thing in 2014. Happily, Dawn is superior in every way to its predecessor and leaves me curious to see where Matt Reeves will take us in his next Apes film, slated for release in 2016.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens cleverly, with credits unfurling over a globe upon which are superimposed brisk audiovisuals of the events concluding the last film, which just as quickly transition through the spread of the Simian Flu virus that has nearly wiped out humanity. The main action begins 10 years after the last film ended, with a human/ape encounter that shocks both parties. The apes are contentedly living in the woods of Northern California under the peaceful leadership of Caesar, while a small group of surviving humans have ventured outside San Francisco in an effort to jumpstart a hydroelectric plant to power their city.
Both the human and ape groups contain a plausible mixture of those who want to co-exist peacefully and those who crave a reason to begin spilling the blood of the other species. I don’t care to give away more of the plot, preferring instead to point out that the story ably provides space for contemplating the relative values of maintaining divisive tribalism versus creating a community of virtuous beings no matter their origins. In telling its story, Dawn alludes to the “fictitious” warmongering of Bush/Cheney, the Twin Towers, and suicide bombers, but amazingly manages to do this without coming across as heavy-handed.
To its credit as well, Dawn depicts violent acts but only rarely (once, by my count) glorifies them. While some will no doubt see this film primarily for the cool factor of watching chimps ride horses and wield machine guns, the violence of Dawn is genuinely tragic, motivated by fear and ignorance. As the onscreen story unfolded, I found myself pondering the real-life question of whether we humans will succeed in destroying ourselves, or whether (a la Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature) we can eschew self-extinction.
All of this is not to say that Dawn is flawless. Some plot turns are quite genre-predictable, and in particular, the final act pivots on a highly unlikely fortuitous encounter. And my inner biologist chafed at the laziness of the script’s repeated references to the non-humans as “apes,” by way of contrast to Homo sapiens. Guys, go back and read your high school science textbook; we’re all apes! (Though, to be fair, I discover I've taken the same linguistic shortcut in writing this review. Sigh...)
Yet, most aspects of this film remain above your average summer fare. The visual rendering of post-apocalypse San Francisco is marvelous, and the blending of the performance capture apes with their human counterparts is nearly flawless. The range of emotion displayed by Andy Serkis and his fellow chimps definitely grabs the spotlight away from the non-furry actors. None of the latter are particularly splendid, with Gary Oldman predictably playing yet another “poor tormented soul” role, but they don’t detract, either. Even Michael Giacchino’s score occasionally sails above the bloated, brass-heavy bombast that is nowadays requisite for action movie accompaniment, with some snappy bits of percussion and piano.
(Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is rightly rated PG-13. I doubt that many younger teens will succeed in looking beyond the adrenaline excitement of the action scenes to any deeper meanings.)
3 stars out of 5