French novelist Pierre Boulle’s alternative universe in which apes rule the planet has long fascinated Hollywood. It spawned five movies between 1968 and 1974, a TV series, plus a remake in the early 2000s. Those releases have been a mixed bag. The original Planet Of The Apes starring Charlton Heston is universally considered a classic, while everything that followed fell far short of the bar it had set. Even the reimagining by Tim Burton didn’t really live up to the lofty expectations. Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 reboot Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes with James Franco, Freida Pinto, and Andy Serkis finally managed to reestablish the standard of the first film – but is its sequel, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, up to par?
Human civilization all over the world completely collapses in the aftermath of a pandemic brought about by ALZ-113, the virus created by Will Rodman in the earlier movie. Fast forward ten years, the brilliant chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis) rules over an ape colony just outside of San Francisco. When a member of his colony is accidentally shot by a human in the woods, he announces that he still wants peace between the two species but that his race will defend their territory. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the leader of the small human party in the forest, convinces both his supervisor Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) in San Francisco and Caesar to let him work on a hydroelectric dam on ape soil to guarantee long-term power to their city.
The chimp chief agrees, as long as they surrender their weapons. After several crucial incidents, Malcolm is able to reduce mistrust between the two sides when his wife Ellie (Keri Russell) treats Caesar’s ill spouse Cornelia (Judy Greer) with antibiotics. Koba (Toby Kebbell), a scarred bonobo who has long hated humans for mistreating him, then openly questions his leader’s loyalty, prompting Caesar to beat him up but leave him alive since he doesn’t kill his own kind. The humiliated simian avenges himself by stealing a rifle from the armory, setting the ape colony on fire, and shooting Caesar in the chest, thus establishing himself as the new alpha male among the anthropoids who believe their leader to be dead.
Koba orders the apes to go to war against the humans and has everyone refusing him imprisoned. Malcolm’s team, fresh off repairing the dam, flees and spots Caesar barely alive. They transport him to his former San Francisco home, where Ellie operates on him. Caesar reveals that Koba fired a gun at him and that his belief apes were better than humans was naive. Malcolm then sees Caesar’s oldest son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), in the city and takes him to the house to meet his recovering father. When Blue Eyes returns to the San Francisco tower taken by the apes, he frees all monkeys loyal to his father and join Caesar as he battles with Koba for supremacy once more on top of the building.
Upon its release in 2011, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was greeted with commercial and critical success, particularly because of its superb special effects and the performance of The Lord Of The Rings star Andy Serkis as Caesar. Cloverfield director Matt Reeves’s Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes therefore had to tread in large footsteps, but it exceeds expectations in all areas. It’s simply an excellent movie, not just for all its audiovisual glory in 2D as well as 3D. The cast deserves a special mention, too. They all do a great job, particularly those who play the simians, while Andy Serkis again steals the show.
For a blockbuster, the screenplay of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver also possesses a surprising depth. There has been an underlying morality to each of the movies from the series, but this one goes beyond all of them, except maybe the 1968 original directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Although they couldn’t have known at the time the story was written, the ALZ-113 disaster in the prolog is eerily similar to the current Ebola scare and all the (conspiracy) theories surrounding it. Having Matt Reeves at the helm certainly helps as well, since he’s already a seasoned veteran regarding dystopian post-disaster worlds thanks to Cloverfield.
Both the director and the screenwriters are especially successful in lending human traits to the apes. We can’t help but feel for the simian characters, for they are representative of the modern societies we live in, or at least one we would like to live in – one in which the good and wise eventually gains the upper hand again. At the same time, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes manages to remain surprisingly believable, hard as that may be in the blockbuster context. While that may have been the original intention, it’s far too intelligent to be lumped together with all the other recent big-budget productions.
Comparing Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes to The Empire Strikes Back may actually not be too far-fetched. Each betters an already impressive first entry into the world of science-fiction by making the universe it depicts darker, deeper, and more thought-provoking. Hollywood would have less to complain about if all of its blockbusters were done as marvelously as this one. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a captivating movie that doesn’t bore you for a single second during its 130-minute running time, not only tickling your senses but also asking you to use your brains. Pierre Boulle would have been proud.