Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback and Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver
I think coming to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in the year 2021, a year into a worldwide pandemic, is both perfect and a little too real to grapple with. Since I will try to focus on the film itself for the rest of the review, let me just comment on the spread of a deadly disease here in my first paragraph, because it was very unsettling. Of course when we left at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, infected lab tech Franklin was found dead in his room, with this mysterious disease already spreading. As we start Dawn, we find out that the disease, known as the Simian Flu, has decimated humanity, essentially opening the door for the apes to take over dominant control of the world. There is in-fighting between humans, and poor disease control response. This is all too real to relive since that is essentially what he response has been to COVID-19, which is endlessly scary and unsettling. We got lucky, yes lucky, that this pandemic wasn’t worse. Imagine if the mortality rate was higher than it was. Imagine. With how we as a country and world responded to this pandemic, we too would be on the verge of the Planet of the Apes. It’s a hard pill to swallow and honestly hard to live with knowing that humans don’t care about humans.
As mentioned, we are roughly a decade later and the Simian Flu has nearly eradicated humanity, with the Muir Woods apes living peacefully north of San Francisco. But after not encountering humans for a few years, a small contingent led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) comes upon the apes in hopes of restarting and restoring the dam in the area to provide power to the small community of humans still living in San Francisco led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Malcolm is able to negotiate a peaceful agreement with Caesar (Andy Serkis) to allow the humans to get the dam running and otherwise let the apes alone. But Caesar’s right hand ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) takes offense, knowing the evil of humanity. Caesar must grapple with knowing both the good and evil of humanity, and play the go between for the humans and apes who are on the precipice of war.
Again, setting aside the political and real world commentary with regards to the pandemic leading to this film, because I could write an entire review addressing those elements which, admittedly, are extratextual to the film itself, I think this is a great film that is even more interesting because of what has happened since. Worth noting right out of the gate that there is a director change, from Rupert Wyatt who ably directed the first film of the trilogy, to Matt Reeves who will take this trilogy home with a whole new tone and direction. Reeves seems well suited for taking over at this point, as Dawn is able to balance both the dramatic scenes, the action scenes, and even the emotionally raw and very human scenes. And I say human like the bits of humanity don’t come directly out of the interactions with and between Caesar. He is the most interesting part of the film because none of this is binary to him. He loves humans and he loves apes. He sees both the good and bad in both and that conflict within him drives the dramatic narrative that leads to the thrilling conclusion of the film. And Jason Clarke’s Malcolm is right there to match him. Both characters are great representatives for their species and the middle ground, gray area that so many from both sides ignore.
And on that note, Serkis and Clarke both deliver incredible performances in the film. Serkis especially is even better here with much more to do than he was in Rise. He carries the emotional weight of the film and some of the best, most insightful scenes in the film are quiet moments between him and his family. That’s what surprised me the most about Dawn, how emotionally resonate and proficient it was for a movie about CGI apes. Really poignant. And the CGI, my goodness! Even for 2014 standards, I think the visual effects work here is really good, and that includes dressing up a post-apocalyptic San Francisco. It’s all very seamless and a lot of credit can be given to the motion capture actors alongside Serkis. It’s quite a feat to be able to deliver a finished product, from all the filmmakers involved in production, to craft a blockbuster event movie about super-intelligent, speaking apes and make it such an entertaining, and frankly emotionally impactful film.
At this point in the new trilogy, I am really looking forward to where the series goes in the finale, and that’s not to say that Dawn feels like a bridge film between the setup and the finale. Quite the opposite in fact as Dawn is a great film that I believe stands on its own. But by being a building block on top of another good building block in Rise, I see endless potential for where War might go in the final act. And look, one of the major gripes I had with the original “origin” trilogy was that they felt like three films that could have been combined to be one. Here, these films (so far) each have their own voice, their own story, and are really excelling at building a world that is believable and that makes me want to spend as much time in it as possible. Not an easy feat. Reeves and team did an incredible job with this film, and the possibilities with the final film of the series are really endless, which is exciting as I’m not positioned to think I know what might happen next, and by separating itself from the original series of films, they are not beholden to coming to some foregone conclusion. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is as exciting a blockbuster film as we’ve had in the last decade, and that is really saying something.