Don’t worry if you haven’t seen a film with Planet of the Apes in the title for a generation or so – or ever. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is, it’s true, a sequel to 2011’s impressive Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but it is also a terrific stand-alone action drama with, for what it’s worth, a gun-control message. Yes, it’s a silly Sci-Fi film about talking apes who ride horses into battle with machine guns but Director Matt Reeves’ film has class. Charles Darwin would have loved for its evolutionary theme; Tolstoy might have admired for its humanistic look at war and peace and Turgenev would have appreciated the father/son bonding subplots.
It’s been ten years since the so-called Simian (it was started by humans experimenting on chimps) flu wiped out almost all of the human population. Caesar (Andy Serkis) his family and their tribe of 2,000 orangutans, chimps and gorillas have flourished in Muir woods, where Caesar spent summers in a cabin with his enlightened human owner as a young chimp. Life is good, even if there is the odd rival. In a spectacular early scene Caesar, warned that danger is approaching, starts a stampede of deer through the woods while hundreds of his tribe swing through the branches, in dark silhouette.
The humans who once mastered the world and kept chimps in cages or, in Caesar’s case, gave them nice homes where they learned to speak English and operate home movie cameras, are now the underdogs. A sizeable group of desperate, exhausted survivors, led by ex-cop Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and former architect, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) makes its way to a post-apocalyptic San Francisco to set up camp in the ruins of an arms warehouse.
Dreyfus and Malcolm know that to keep the disgruntled, starving mob from anarchy, they need light and heat. Malcolm and a small contingent are threatened by apes when they naively wander through the woods where nature is reclaiming the old power plant. In one of those powerful, dramatic turning points that Reeves directs so well, Caesar avoids human casualty – and war – after a young male ape is wounded. To placate the other apes, however, he bans humans from entering the woods again.
Malcolm has no choice but to return. He successfully negotiates a compromise with Caesar, who will allow a small contingent to return for a day provided they are unarmed. Rival gorilla Koba (Toby Kebbell), who, unlike Caesar, spent his life in human laboratories and despises humans, is determined to turn the colony against Caesar’s pacifistic policy.
While the electricity contingent, which includes Malcolm, girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russel) a nurse, and Malcolm’s bookish teenage son Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee), make the plant operational, Koba steals a rifle from the humans and shoots Caesar, framing the humans. Koba assumes control and the apes attack the human compound, unaware that Caesar is recuperating in the care of Malcolm, Ellie and Alexander in that familiar cabin in the woods.
Reeves, working from a script by Mark Bomback, based on the characters created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, goes for the macho jugular. There are only two minor female roles: for a human nurse and an ape mother. Reeves makes the most of the script, intensifying key moments in a scene by holding a dramatic look for an extra second. This develops into a long, haunting freeze on Caesar’s eyes in the last scene, as war between gorilla and man looks inevitable.
Reeves stages the massive battle scenes with aplomb, even if the Koba/Caesar duals have been played out before between men before. The relationship between Caesar and his son is, curiously, more developed than that between Malcolm and Alex but there’s enough tension in the film to make up for it. And it’s hard not to love a film where the first song we hear when the electricity is switched on is Robbie Robertson’s The Weight.
Andy Serkis has cornered the market with his genius for playing talking animals and creatures in performance capture films like Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. His 2005 King Kong made his casting as Caesar in both ‘Rise’ and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a sure bet. To a large extent, Serkis, cinematographer Michael Seresin and the special effects, costume and production direction teams, make up for the underwritten human roles and lacklustre acting from the human side. Stay through the credits to hear the animal sounds mix with the soulful music at the very end of Michael Giacchino’s effective score.