As a technical triumph, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is groundbreaking. Never has performance capture been used so extensively, integral to the film’s dramatic narrative. Its computer animation blurs lines between what looks real and artificial, turning simian shaped pixels into emotionally complex characters. Director Matt Reeves takes the bold and genius decision to take the perspective of the apes, the passive beneficiaries of the ALZ-113 drug, leaving earth in an apocalyptic state as Caesar (Andy Serkis) governs a growing tribe of apes located in the Muir Woods, just north of San Francisco, the same location Will (James Franco) had allowed him to roam free as a youngster. He governs in a democratic and progressive fashion as the leader of this brand new civilisation, while Koba (Toby Kebbell) provides the film’s antagonism, a damaged bonobo seen briefly in the last film, seeking revenge against the remaining humans for their treatment of apes. Conversely, Caesar still recognises the innate goodness in humans because of his nurturing and upbringing with Will. The film recognises the importance of character development without slapping you across the face with it, building on what’s been established in the first film. Koba’s worldview is sympathetic because we understand what he has been through, making him a lot more complex than simply filling the role of the film’s bad guy.
The first 15 minutes of Dawn are spent entirely with the ape community, dialogue consisting of grunts, signs and facial expressions, introducing the rules and emotional depth of this community. When the apes finally come into contact with the remaining humans we start hearing more English spoken from our simian brothers and sisters, which never stops sounding odd. The film does suffer by introducing some dreary human survivors (Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Keri Russel, Kodi Smit-McPhee) who lack personality and charisma, maybe underwritten purposefully to provide greater focus upon the apes but to such an extent that they get plenty of screen time but feel rather boring.
That being said, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has arresting visuals which are a bold antidote to the ceaseless and throwaway computerised explosions which litter the summer box office. Its use of effects are integral to the film’s emotional resonance, containing a story which asks interesting, universal questions about the best way to lead and live in a civilisation.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is out now in the UK and US. Running time 130 mins. Certificate 12A (UK).
Review by David Rank