#1 in my Ranking of the Planet of the Apes Franchise.
Matt Reeves took the foundation laid in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and he just flat out ran with it, making one of the best looking, most emotionally involving and satisfying, and all around best built film of the franchise. Everything about this film’s story deepens and broadens the world and the characters, the visuals back it up intelligently, and the performances even from the secondary rank of characters are all top-notch. This movie is great.
In the very first two Planet of the Apes movies there was an overt pessimism and borderline nihilism when it came to humanity and how its current state was going to destroy the future. The franchise largely and intentionally forgot about that, and that always kind of bugged me. And yet, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes actually flies in the face of that thematic base, not presenting humanity as unworthy of its place on top of the world order, but instead it changes the dynamic into a question about the nature of evil and how it can pop up anywhere. Humanity isn’t preternaturally evil, and neither are the apes, but it’s the presence of evil in both of them that causes the conflict that breaks out.
About ten years after the events of the previous film, humanity is a shell of its former self, and Caesar, the talking ape, has moved his tribe into the forests to the north of San Francisco where they are building the beginnings of a new society. They hunt, they sign their thoughts to each other, and they teach their young to read and write in the English language. Their idyllic life gets challenged when, for the first time in two years, humans encroach on their territory. In several ways, the clash of civilizations story that plays out in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes reminds me of Terrence Malick’s The New World. Set in a more natural state with an Eden-like idealized society free from outside influence, it’s the mere touch and knowledge of the further world that ends up toppling the current order. Things build until neither society can accept the new order fully, and the clash erupts.
Well, the humans are moving northward because they are running out of fuel in their sanctuary in the heart of San Francisco. They need to find the hydroelectric dam that fed the northern parts of the state of California, get it back up and running, and redirect the power south. Caesar is smart enough to realize that if he cuts off the humans completely, they’re desperate enough to simply come back in force and take what they need, so in order to save the lives of his apes, he allows the work with tight oversight. This does not sit well with Koba, a bonobo who was most cruelly treated by humanity in his previous life as a test subject in scientific labs. The peace that manages to work out between the small group of humans, led by Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, and the ape society moves in fits and starts and feels like it could be the cornerstone of something new and good. However, prejudice on both sides keeps it from fully forming. Carver, another human, blames the apes for the disease that wiped out humanity, and his actions of mistrust end up taking the most innocent moments and defiling them.
Everything goes wrong, though, when Koba, feeling untrusted by Caesar who seems to love humans more than apes, goes to San Francisco and finds the human’s Plan B in the form of weapons testing. There was left a large cache of weapons behind by FEMA, and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman in a small but surprisingly touching role) is having them tested to ensure their usability if Malcolm’s mission fails and they need to move in in force. Koba, in a fantastic scene, uses his past as an ape among humans to disarm the two guys testing the weapons and kill them, takes the weapon back, shoots Caesar at the height of the peace between human and ape, and leaves the gun as evidence that humans did the deed.
Structurally, it’s interesting that the movie is essentially action free until about an hour and a half into the film. There are moments of tension (great tension, by the way) and a very early hunting scene, but outside of that, it’s just straight drama. That dramatic work ends up benefiting the movie greatly for when the action does break out and it embraces some visuals that could have felt really schlocky but end up feeling genuine and terrifying. Koba leads the apes in a charge to the tower where the humans have set up their sanctuary, and the apes use horses and the weapons cache to fire upon the tower. I mean, it’s images of apes riding horses firing machine guns (sometimes two at a time) in front of walls of fire. You put that at the beginning of a movie or in a story that doesn’t have the dramatic support, and it’s a cool image but that’s it. Because Koba has been so well built and the situation between ape and human so well established, it’s an emotional moment of terror as the conflict we knew was possible and never wanted breaks out in full force, demonstrating visually the hatred that had been brewing in Koba the whole film.
The resolution of the film is really emotionally satisfying as well. Caesar, spending some days to recover at the hands of Malcolm and his doctor girlfriend Ellie, revisits the home that he and Will shared in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, helping remind him of the gentleness of humanity in the face of the betrayal of his own kind. Recovered enough, Caesar takes some loyal apes into the compound for a faceoff with Koba, and, at the same time, Malcolm has to faceoff against Dreyfus in a similar conflict. The two play really well off of each other because Caesar’s becomes a fight on the tallest parts of the tower with Koba, full of dynamic action, while Malcolm’s faceoff with Dreyfus is a lowkey affair where Malcolm simply tries to keep Dreyfus from pressing a button. Cutting from one to the other feeds the overall tension, but we don’t get overwhelmed by the action playing out. It’s an exceptionally well-built final action sequence that way.
This is the only movie in the franchise other than Conquest of the Planet of the Apes that really trusts the apes to carry the film. That’s not to say that the human characters aren’t present, they are, but they rather explicitly act as support to Caesar’s story. At the same time, the human side of things are surprisingly touching. It’s not that they have their own movies going on at the same time, but Reeves and his writers created enough depth to each of the humans so that they felt real, driven by their own wants and needs, and not just because the plot demanded their subservience. It really is Caesar and Koba, though, who are the stars, representing a conflicting vision of the future that they ultimately cannot bridge. The supporting apes from Maurice, the orangutan, and Blue Eyes, Caesar’s eldest son, are as emotionally complex and satisfying as the human supporting characters.
The movie looks fantastic with fantastic visual effects from WETA Digital making the apes convincing pretty much every moment they’re on screen. The music is really good, even going so far as to evoke the atonal score that Jerry Goldsmith wrote for the original Planet of the Apes. Performances are great throughout, and it’s all so very well written. This is an outright great film and proof that Matt Reeves is one of the best big-budget directors working.