With Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) taking over the director's chair for Rupert Wyatt, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a far better film than likely many of us expected and it may very well prove to be one of the most satisfying sequels in recent memory.
The film also happens to raise the question, once again, as to how in the heck Andy Serkis has yet to garner any Oscar Award attention at all because, once again, the actor makes magic happen with the absolute brilliance of his performance capture work as Caesar.
Give the man an Oscar. Seriously. NOW.
As a film critic, I must confess that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the kind of film that I typically find maddening because it's a CGI-laden film that is heavy on the special effects and almost completely reliant on 3-D imagery.
Here's the real kicker, though. It works. It really, really works.
Reeves has crafted a film that is immensely thought-provoking, deeply felt, visually hypnotic, and a major improvement on the Wyatt reboot that was, in fact, a pretty darn good film.
It's hard not to wonder how Charlton Heston would feel about this Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a film with some undeniably underlying messages about watching the world in which we live disintegrate as a gun culture takes hold of it. The film kicks off 10 years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes after the laboratory manufactured virus not so affectionately called Simian Flu has run rampant around the world and killed millions of people. In fact, with the apes in question holding fort in what is Muir Woods, nary a human has been seen in quite some time and there's more than a few of the apes who think that humanity has been wiped out. The truth, however, is that there are said to be pockets of survivors including one particular pocket in San Francisco led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), whose verbose promises of restoring the past allows him to hold onto power. He's assisted in an effort to restore power to the region by Malcolm (Jason Clarke).
While the humans are trying to restore power, Caesar is gently leading the diverse colony of apes, bobonos, gorillas, and orangutans in scenery that may very well be among the most truly immersive to be captured in 3-D. The film took 3-D imagery out of the lab and the soundstage and put it into a practical setting and the impact is simply astounding. If you've ever been to the Muir Woods area, then you already know the region itself is already an immersive and deeply spiritual experience. It's used to its full potential here.
The apes communicate mostly with hand gestures and simple yet meaningful language, but what's most astounding is watching unfold just how much they've adapted to their new lives. All is well as apes and humans live in their own separate areas, at least until one of Malcolm's teams ventures too close to the apes and an incident involving a gun raises the tension. Koba (Toby Kebbell), a peer of Caesar yet far less patient and, for those who remember the original film, an ape who isn't particularly fond of humans anyway, wants to exact immediate revenge yet Caesar is, at least initially, able to manage Koba's emotions.
Reeves directs Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to near perfection by beautifully managing the film's consistent yet never overwhelming tension and wisely avoiding the hand-held camera work that he used to such strong impact in his debut, Cloverfield. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is almost the polar opposite, a remarkably disciplined piece of filmmaking that magnificently utilizes the lensing of D.P. Michael Seresin. Seresin manages to paint a vibrant yet grim picture of the world that now exists, yet he does so in a wondrously luminous way that seems to have escaped the vast majority of folks who've attempted this kind of scenery.
While one can certainly argue against and be bothered by the ample use of CGI imagery here ranging from the apes themselves to some rather remarkable battle sequences, it's hard to argue against the kind of intellectually satisfying popcorn chewin' filmmaking that's going on in a film that will not only have you leaving the theater being awed by the imagery but needing to talk about the ideas that Reeves and his writers, Mark Bomback, Amanda Silver, and Rick Jaffa, have put forth here.
Serkis, and maybe even Kebbell, deserve awards attention here for their nothing short of inspiring performances. I continue to be astounded at how much life and emotion that Serkis can bring to performances behind all that costuming and performance capture equipment. There are scenes, ranging from battle sequences to a remarkable touching scene involving his wife giving birth, that are simply breathtaking.
Among the humans, Gary Oldman is nicely utilized here and extremely effective while both Keri Russell and Jason Clarke give memorable performances. Michael Giacchino contributes the film's original score, easily one of the year's first truly memorable and rapturous scores. James Chinlund's production design will most assuredly be remembered come awards season.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the kind of popcorn flick that even most film critics love, at least most film critics who are still in touch with that love and passion that they had for film when they first started writing. It's an immersive and wholly satisfying experience that may not technically be a perfect film but it's a perfectly awesome movie-going experience. This may very well be the truly blockbuster film that Hollywood has been waiting for this Summer.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic