Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’: Long Live the Kings

It’s the apes’ world and we’re just living in it. Or, at least, between 2011 and 2017, it certainly felt that way. That six-year period, like the apes themselves, were punctuated by blockbuster spectacles so massively intelligent, so thoroughly unique yet familiar, it felt almost criminal. There was no way a prequel trilogy to a revered property could be this good. With Caesar (Andy Serkis) the ape in charge, though, the impossible remains gloriously, seductively possible.

Nestled between the really-good-though-marred-by-Franco Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the considerably-better-than-anyone-will-admit conclusive chapter War for the Planet of the Apes is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the middle child that puts its two adjacent siblings to shame. As good as both Rise and War are, Matt Reeves of Cloverfield fame redefined what a summer blockbuster could be with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Though he returned to the directorial chair for War as well – having replaced inaugural Rise director Rupert Wyatt – Dawn is Reeves and writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver at their subversive, anarchist best.

Much has been made about the contemporary urge for summer blockbusters, and really, blockbusters writ large to embrace their genre roots and go as dark and grungy as possible, but more often than not (looking at you, Zack Snyder), that grit is inauthentic and baroque. The veneer of pluck is there, but the characterisation, narrative structure, and consequential plot beats feel so forced, so middle school role play, the entire enterprise falls apart. It’s the Hot Topic of summer blockbusters, really nice movies pantomiming punk sensibilities.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is dark. Genuinely, distressingly dark. Its follow-up, War, is little more than a Holocaust parable with apes, but it works, and it works solely on account of the foundation Reeves and company outline here. Apes gun soldiers down with aplomb. Jason Clarke gets to shout the F-word at Gary Oldman. Keri Russell, a master of acting with just her eyes, feels the entire weight of a world decimated by a deadly pandemic while holding a newborn ape. As she looks into the child’s eyes, the flint of her eye suggests the global grief that’s been and the grief yet to come.

It’s heady, dizzying stuff, anchored by still unmatched motion-capture performances from Andy Serkis as Caesar and Toby Kebbell as Koba, Dawn’s antagonist. Briefly introduced in the prequel, Koba’s role is augmented in Dawn. Humans living in colonies along the Muir Woods near San Francisco enter the Apes’ territory to restart a hydroelectric dam and restore power to their city. Though initially apprehensive, Caesar, the best-damned movie ape there ever was, is willing to trust them, largely on account of his relationship with Franco’s Will in Rise. Koba, though, marred by his mistreatment and threatened by Caesar’s power, burns the apes’ sanctuary, shoots Caesar, and frames the humans.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The climactic battle, teased with armrest-clutching tension in the first two acts, comes fast and furious. Tanks are fired, buildings are blown apart, and unarmed citizenry is gunned down by Koba and his army. Dawn, too, is unafraid to wander into territory other blockbuster properties wouldn’t even dare consider, let alone think of. The thought alone is too dangerous, too dark, to imagine. Koba demands Ash (Doc Shaw) murder a group of unarmed humans, Ash refuses, citing Caesar’s nonviolent teachings. Koba swiftly throws Ash over a balcony to his death and kills the humans. The camera lingers, first on Ash’s body below and then on Koba’s carnage. It’s profoundly sobering, the full weight of conflict and violence laid bare. Audiences demanded ape-on-human action– this is what it looks like. It’s ugly, dour stuff. The candy-corn frenzy of The Avengers and city-levelling spectacle of sundry other superhero epics this is not– there are ramifications to action and violence, a toll taken for big budgets and state-of-the-art effects work. These apes look real – so do their deaths.

Interspersed throughout are pockets of pathos. A brief moment of repose when power is returned and The Band’s “The Weight” plays – I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ about half-past dead/I just need someplace where I can lay my head– or a gut-punch of a scene where, back in San Francisco, Caesar revisits old camcorder tapes of his time with Will. Excuse me, I’m not crying, my eyes are just hydroelectric dams.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is Shakespearean in scope. It swaggers with well-deserved blockbuster grandeur. A politically-charged action masterpiece, there has been nothing quite like it released in the seven years since. A terrific trifecta of tragedy and tunnelling hope, there isn’t a weak link among the trilogy, though Dawn of the Planet of the Apes stands out as the best among the best. It is Caesar’s avowed rule that apes not kill apes. It is my rule, too, that humans watch apes. Watch them triumph. Watch them fall. Watch them reign.

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