Four years ago you never could’ve predicted that “Planet of the Apes” would be rebooted to critical and financial acclaim, let alone become perhaps the most promising franchises born after 2010. If “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (read the review) was a consummate origin story, then “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a consummate next step in a larger story, and proof that a movie franchise can evolve more gradually and still be grippingly entertaining.
The sequel picks up well after the end of “Rise,” which implied that a simian virus wiped out a large portion of the earth’s population. At this point, the apes have established a village outside San Francisco and their intelligence has grown (as has main ape Caesar’s vocabulary). When a band of human survivors stumbles across some of the apes, Caesar (played fabulously once more by leading mo-cap actor Andy Serkis) confronts the colony of human survivors (led by Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman) and issues a stern warning to the humans to let the apes live in peace. However, the apes’ home is situated next to a dam — the humans’ only hope for a power source and theoretically their only way to survive.
“Rise” writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver return and they’ve remarkably crafted a story as straightforward, suspenseful and emotional as the original (with some help from 20th Century Fox A-list screenwriter Mark Bomback). The entire movie we wait for the other shoe to drop as humans and apes must get along but don’t entirely trust each other, and a few dark characters on both sides undermine the good guys: Caesar and Clarke’s Malcolm.
Caesar is the linchpin of this series. James Franco’s character not being part of it says everything you need to know. The fact that the movie spends more time acquainting us with the ape characters than the human ones demonstrates that the creatives behind the film know it too. They should pass that information along to Paramount for the “Transformers” franchise.
The story is packed with character-building, suspense, painful misunderstandings, betrayal, hope, violence and justice. You really feel the roller coaster ride of the story in your guts, a vicarious feeling that too few blockbusters create, even the really entertaining ones. Caesar is the kind of character that all blockbusters should have and he’s entirely done in CGI. That tells you just how crucial good storytelling is to creating characters. They don’t have to be human. Not to take anything away from Serkis’ brilliance, but Jaffa and Silver should teach a class on screen writing that should be mandatory for the rest of Hollywood’s big studio writers. They way they create empathy and stick to basic storytelling tenants in a crude yet effective way is so laudable. And undoubtedly Bomback (“Unstoppable,” “The Wolverine”) helped ratchet up the entertainment factor.
Director Matt Reeves picks up on all these terrific moments in the script and nurtures them. He lets the plot breathe and gives it time to snowball, and by the time it does, the audience is so invested in the outcome that the ending doesn’t have to be great, it just has to give us what we want, which it does.
“Dawn” is also thematically stronger than “Rise,” taking the idea of both apes and humans having both good and evil tendencies to the next level. It’s elementary stuff about human (and ape) nature but in this premise it clicks especially well. Through the eyes of a growing civilization of apes and humanity rebuilding we see the chance for a fresh start for human and ape-kind in, which makes the conflict between them so maddening throughout the film yet also riveting.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” propels the slow-build of this franchise to the point that it almost feels more like a first entry than a second. That’s a good thing. So often franchises work in trilogies, but Fox could turn this into a four-film arc easily with the right story. So far, however, the scope has been kept small, allowing for character moments and that emotional connection. They will have an opportunity to blow the lid off everything, but hopefully Fox has learned a thing or two and will continue to make this about Caesar rather than just a war of apes and humans.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman