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Review: 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' is a war movie with no bad guys

The second in the "Planet of the Apes" reboot goes to war, but without taking sides and patiently building its story into anarchic monkey mayhem.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) returns as a more fearsome leader in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." Credit: WETA Caesar (Andy Serkis) returns as a more fearsome leader in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."
Credit: WETA

'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'
Director: Matt Reeves
Stars: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke
Rating: PG-13
4 (out of 5) Globes

The original five-film “Planet of the Apes” cycle that began in 1968 was seen as junk; the new reboot, which started with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” has been treated closer to art. Like its predecessor, the new “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is more serious, which is in many ways for the better and in other ways a bit less so.

It’s not as political as the originals


Despite being increasingly cheap, G-rated money-gobblers for kids, the original run of “Apes” films is actually one of the craziest, most political and most cynical franchises in the movies. They’re steeped in civil rights lingo and imagery; the fourth one ("Conquest of") even climaxes with a slave revolt. “Rise” avoided all of that. Instead, it went for a straight-up, lovingly crafted genre film. It was a prison escape picture with long dialogue-free stretches, following a mammal — chimp Caesar, “played” by motion-capture star Andy Serkis — as he was driven to revolt by careless humans. In fact, it was political, just on the sly: It details the birth of one character’s radicalism.

Even the human leader (Gary Oldman) is more anxious than evil, reluctant to start any war. Credit: David James Even the human leader (Gary Oldman) is more anxious than evil, reluctant to start any war.
Credit: David James

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This one has no good guys — or bad guys


In “Rise,” humans were by and large the enemy, with a few token nice eggs. Here, the line isn’t quite so clear. A super-virus has wiped out society and much of humanity. There’s a pocket of survivors in San Francisco who live without electricity or contact with other potential survivors. But they have tons of guns, as well as, in some cases, an irrational hatred of the apes who live nearby, in their own mini-society in the forest. But the apes, now led by Caesar, also hold a much more rational hatred of humans, who once tortured them — and in any case presently have tons of guns. And yet there are no bad guys, and if there are — like ticking time bomb chimp Koba (Toby Kebbel), who rocks a giant scar given to him by meddling scientists — they have their reasons too. Even the human leader, played touchingly by Gary Oldman, is tortured, more nervous than villainous.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) converses with token bad chimp Koba (Tony Kebbell). Credit: WETA Caesar (Andy Serkis) converses with token bad chimp Koba (Tony Kebbell).
Credit: WETA

It’s visually assured


“Dawn”’s set-up makes it sound like “Battle of the Planet of the Apes,” the original series’ nadir. It’s miles better, not only in smarts but also in how carefully it’s been crafted. Matt Reeves may be best known for the shaky-cam found footage “Cloverfield,” but he’s a confident visualist who chooses his images carefully. In “Let Me In,” his unexpectedly sharp redo of “Let the Right One In,” he shot a car crash from the backseat of said car. Reeves does a couple long-take wonders here, including one in a war zone that could be dubbed “Children of Apes.” But most of the film is commanding in less show-offy ways. Reeves is clean and patient, allowing the film to build steadily before erupting in some truly impressive — and frightening — monkey mayhem.

Here's what the set of an mo-cap "Apes" film looks like: Jason Clarke talks to Andy Serkis as a pre-CGI chimp Caesar. Credit: David James Here's what the set of an mo-cap "Apes" film looks like: Jason Clarke talks to Andy Serkis as a pre-CGI chimp Caesar.
Credit: David James

It takes the story very seriously


“Dawn” is clear-eyed in the way it charts mounting civil unrest between two factions without picking sides. But it's a very male-heavy film; the women, even Keri Russell as one of the nice humans, are regulated to matriarch roles. And itcould stand to have a bit more humor. It’s very heavy, from the studied shot selection to the gravity of escalating warfare to the way every character is traumatized. Caesar has morphed into an intimidating, at times unknowable, even stubborn leader. (Serkis gives a truly subtle performance; it's all in the face, Ceasar's reserved emotions betrayed in the minutest of expressions.) "Dawn" sometimes forgets that it needs to be junk too; it could be at times a bit looser. It’s not always this way: the warfare sequences have a ramshackle, scrambling intensity. And best of all, it boasts a sight you always wanted to see, perhaps without realizing it: a howling chimpanzee astride a horse blazing two machine guns.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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