Beyond being a direct sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about morality and what is possible when all hope is lost and civilization has crumbled completely. The follow follows Caesar as he has built a colony for apes a decade after the events of the first film. Humans have finally found a source of power in San Francisco after being devastated by the simian flu that killed millions. The humans have to gain the trust of the apes to get access to their power source but may not be able to trusted by Caesar.
Matt Reeves does a fantastic job at showing audiences not only what the beginning of an ape’s evolution might look like but also continues the clever use of sign language that allows the apes to communicate with each other. Silent moments have never so tense in a film. The humans are resorted to being to being defined by traits but that doesn’t stop Jason Clarke and Keri Russell pulling slightly above average acting work. Gary Oldman’s character doesn’t really do much until the film’s final third but when he does perform he outshines the rest of the cast except for one person.
Andy Serkis is the whole reason why this film ends up being as powerful as it is. He performs the motion capture and voice for Caesar and he does every movement and facial expression as if he had lived with apes since childhood. Essentially Serkis is a perfect mimic of animal behavior. I like the fact that this movie relies on family and clans to demonstrate how much of a struggle it is to garner peace between two different forms of life. One of the things that makes this film so rewarding is the cowboy and Indians like metaphor that not only shapes but builds the eventual conflict between humans and apes.
The other ape who has a lot of screen time and was featured in the previous films is Koba. Koba is a great character simply because he knows the cruelty humans can inflict on apes. Caesar is blind to how much apes suffered before he came into being. He is the advisor to Caesar and is very opinionated about why humans should not be underestimated. What drives the plot forward is Koba’s evolution as he goes from advisor to adversary. Reeves constructed the environment the apes live in so well that it was plainly evident that someone who had been affected by “human work” would eventually challenge Caesar’s vision for peace.
A detractor from the film is a character named Carver played by Kirk Acevedo. He is the human version of the opinions Koba embodies. I felt that Carver while bitter about the simian flu came across in the film as overly hateful against apes. I feel like the undertones in villainy need to be subtle or covert as that can often aide an audience in getting on board with the hero. Carver made no qualms about his distrust and dislike for apes but I felt the portrayal was boisterous and loud in comparison to Koba’s slow hostile takeover of all that Caesar built and worked for.
Ultimately, this film paints a portrait not of what it means to survive but how family in its many forms can help both people and apes alike know that good exists within each other. By the end of the film though Caesar knows good exists within humans he knows many operate from feelings of tragedy and anger. This darker film is an excellent companion to the first entry in the rebooted series and I hope to see many audiences ponder the moral quandaries this film showcases.