Following a quick recap of where the last film left off, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens with the camera locked on simian-leader Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) intense eyes as he leads a hunt in a rain-soaked forest. This is appropriate as the film spends most of it’s running time unfolding from the perspective of the apes. The first half of the film is mostly dedicated to showing us the inner workings of the ape community and the strong, emotional connections they have with one another. Scenes often unfold with no dialogue as the apes sign to one another; their facial expressions and body language conveying everything beautifully. It’s some kind of miraculous alchemy of performance and visual magic. Amazing stuff.
The film has humans too of course but they are not nearly as interesting. Following the flu epidemic that wipes out most of the earth’s population, we are introduced to a small band of people who have traveled into the Muir Woods to access a hydroelectric generator at a damn. They are hoping to restore electricity back to an outpost of humans in the remains of San Francisco. It is here that the two worlds collide.
Screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver parallel the mounting fears/distrust in each of these societies as well as their longing to protect and maintain their sense of family. The benevolent Caesar tries to reign in his lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) who is eager to head to war. Similarly, human-survivor Malcom (Jason Clarke) is eager to make peace with the apes even as his outpost leader (Gary Oldman) wants to wipe them out for good. Everyone’s intentions are in the right place but fear has a way of snowballing into violence.
Serious minded, somber, yet engaging all the way, Dawn may not be the more crowd-pleasing outing that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was but it takes the ape community dynamic to another level and in turn resonates more deeply. With its mind a little more on war, race and politics than Rise, it feels more akin to the original Fox series of films. Director Matt Reeves may be a bit transparent/pedestrian in his style but the pacing here is near perfect and the more emotional moments between the apes are thoughtfully handled. In fact, those quieter scenes that make up a large part of the first half of the film are so good that they make the inevitable second half feel like a bit of letdown.
I really enjoyed the score by Michael Giacchino which, early on in the film, had some call back moments to Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score to the original POTA. I should also mention the marvelous production design by James Chinlund; the ape village and post-epidemic Frisco were both effectively realized. If nothing else, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes raises the legitimate question: Can a performance-capture role be nominated for an acting award? Recommended.