Dawn of the Planet of the Apes movie poster

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an intimate film based around emotion and character. It’s also an $170 million blockbuster that could get away with blowing a lot of things up with special effects. But instead, it mixes the two to demonstrate that blockbusters can be emotionally charged narratives that engage with special effects in every frame. Who could’ve known? The previous film in the series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, achieved critical and box office success in 2011 and revitalized a series that looked dead after the horrid 2001 Tim Burton reboot. What Dawn does is use the world-building from the first film and puts it on the back burner to interact with the characters in this landscape. Like other great sequels (in what, I presume, will be a trilogy with the next film closing out this narrative), the film doesn’t advance the central plot so much as set the emotional table for the other films and provides immense insight into the world.

This is a ravaged world with seemingly no hope: apes dominate after the virus started in the first film expanded to the ends of the Earth. Humans have abandoned central hubs and instead find refuge in any place they can, surviving for the past decade while the virus eliminated all signs of life. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is one of those people. He lost his wife and protects his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has a knack for sketching. Ellie (Keri Russell) is a smart woman that’s dating Malcolm despite the complications of being some of the last human survivors. The leader of their group, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), is a determined leader that knows there’s little hope for survival. He finds something in the dense forests in San Francisco, though, that could assist their survival: our power generator located at a dam. The only problem? Apes run rampant in the surrounding area, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), who decides to let the humans work despite their aggression toward each other. Koba (Toby Keddell), a violent ape, aims to stage a revolt to assert apes’ domination in the new world order.

Caesar is the hero of this story. That’s one of the most remarkable things the film accomplishes. He’s front-and-center, has more development than the human characters, and the actor playing him delivers a deeply felt, personable performance. It’s vital to the film’s effectiveness, and Serkis is the primary reason Dawn works. He’s advanced the work he put forth in the original by navigating the world as a determined leader with few options. He must protect his tribe but also find a way to live in this world without going to war. The special effects that exist around these characters is some of the most remarkable motion-capture I’ve seen in film, enhancing the already impressive work used in the original. These are lifelike, humanistic characters that feel, act, and think just like their human counterparts. The humanity within these primates may sound like a fairly simple thing to accomplish through special effects, but the internal battle between Caesar and Koba is remarkably staged. It’s all impressive.

Dawn doesn’t just depend upon its special effects-heavy characters and narrative, though. While its human characters are often pushed to the side for long periods of time, characters like Dreyfus shine because of their loss. Almost every human alive in the story is genetically immune to the disease that has killed most of the world’s population, and Dreyfus is one of many men that has lost his family in the process. In a moment when they have electricity and he brings up photos on his tablet, he sobs uncontrollably at the sight of his family. Then, in an instant, he’s primed and ready to lead his people. That weakness has no place in the outside world. Oldman captures this just like you’d expect a seasoned veteran, with composure and restraint. His performance is subtly effective. Reeves’ direction behind the camera is leaps and bounds ahead of his work from Cloverfield, emphasizing the emotional heft and complexity of the story. This is a tale of triumph and tragedy and the beginning of the end. Caesar’s struggle in the film’s conclusion emphasizes the marked connection between the two races: that they both have outliers that can make their species seem compassionless, when in reality they care deeply about one another. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is weighty, lofty entertainment, an ambitious summer film amidst the gluttony of blockbusters.

Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)

Written by Eric Forthun