Rise of the Planet of the Apes (my review) was a left field classic. it was smart, staggeringly conceived, and of its own mind despite the sheer amount of previous material in the series. It also carried the art of motion capture and the marriage of narrative and computer generated imagery a step further down the track. As a technical achievement alone it was a winner. That it had a soul and used summer movie ingredients to make a delicious concoction elevated it to something else, a product that could be soiled by damaging sequels and misappropriation of its brave steps forward. It was imperative that were the story to evolve it would have to maintain the integrity and focus established by Rupert Wyatt and his team. It was without a doubt the best thing to wear the ‘Planet of the Apes’ brand.
Until now. The sequel is better.
After Cloverfield and Let Me In it was apparent that Matt Reeves was an interesting filmmaker but there wasn’t a lot of evidence that he was capable of moving the goalpost further. Instantly it’s apparent that his instincts are more than appropriate. This film is not about human beings. It’s about apes. It’s about Caesar and his evolving struggle between his race, growth, trust, and the ever-present threat of the few surviving human beings in the post-apocalyptic world born out of the events of the first film. It’s bold, it’s fresh, and it’s literally the only way the film could justify its existence. Special effects house Weta and Andy Serkis are a match made in Heaven and Caesar may be the most interesting leading man of the summer. Motion capture, voice capture, and nearly photorealistic visual effects realize the hyper intelligent ape leader in a way that makes Serkis’s own Gollum seem primitive by comparison. It’s an astounding bit of total immersion watching this society of primates come to life and absolutely carry a live action movie in the most competitive season film has to offer.
Picking up about ten years after the events of the first film Dawn reveals a world where humanity as a whole is an endangered species. The Apes have flourished and though they face challenges the overriding credo of “Ape not kill ape” has kept them whole. Caesar and his kind enjoy peace of which the likes of mankind had never been able to muster. When humans reenter their world, it throws that peace into flux. Humanity is on the ropes and there is a large percentage of the ape population which feels the coup de grace should be delivered to the disease-ridden hairless bipeds. Caesar, once of a very strong bond with a human, isn’t so sure and fragmenting begins. Additionally, the human side of the equation looks at their adversaries as animals to be exterminated and not the equals they have evolved into. It’s not a new theme to the Planet of the Apes franchise but it’s definitely the most assertive and acutely designed. The director cites The Godfather as an influence for the film and it’s most obvious in the treachery and pondering present between Caesar, his son, and principal lieutenant Koba. The humans led by Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, and Keri Russell aren’t afterthoughts. They’re plot movers as a whole but their struggle is more goal driven than anything else. They give the film grounding and help ease the visual burden and keep Dawn from feeling like an animated film. It’s anything but, and there are precious few moments where it doesn’t feel like the apes are living, breathing creatures with heart and soul. Equal praise has to go to Serkis, Toby Kebbel, and the other motion capture performers as does to the technicians bringing them. There’s not only much-needed life behind their eyes, there’s nuance in their performance that ought to be giving James Cameron sleepless nights.
The story itself is rather small. The cadre of humans living just outside the apes’ sphere of influence need to activate the dam in ape territory to restore power and the apes have trepidation that interaction with men will cause war. It’s truly simple but it leads to some rather epic moments. The real meat comes from seeing these creatures come to life and deliver fully formed performances as would any other actor. Seeing the scale teeter back and forth between each species struggling to survive in a world truly only big enough for one of them is where the value comes. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was intimate and complex as is the need for the first act in any great story. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the delivery on that promise and what it lacks in that intimacy it gains in seeing evolution and those seeds coming to life.
Jason Clarke is not a leading man and that is a wise decision by Matt Reeves. He’s the avatar for the best that mankind can offer in this tumultuous future while Gary Oldman serves as an example of how the loss and tragedy forces us into dangerous decisions but he is not a leading man. He’s a survivor who doesn’t have the ability to stand toe to toe with the apes. He’s respectful and sometimes subservient. As Caesar Andy Serkis is a leading man and he owns it. Eventually there’s either going to have to be some sort of accolade for performances of this kind or an entirely new category needs to form. This is acting 3.0, something that is rarefied air that transcends the standards. This is a towering performance. Unquestionably.
This is a confident, dark, astounding movie. It’s not one for traditional structure and the plotting is rather standard but it makes up for that in tone, elegance, and honest to goodness great moment after great moment. This is as pure an example of a great concept birthing a great franchise with legs as there is. Is it a must see? Yes. Is it a contender for the best movie of the summer? Yes. Is Planet of the Apes toe to to toe with any other major property out there? Hell yes.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars