Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Directed By: Matt Reeves
Written By: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell

4 Stars

There’s a brilliant scene in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes where a baby chimpanzee jumps away from his mother and starts playing with a group of humans.  The adult apes and humans are alarmed at first, but they let the young chimp have a little fun despite the obvious tension between the two parties.  The infant cares nothing of this, though.  He hasn’t yet been taught to mistrust those different from them–he sees people to play with, therefore he plays.  It quickly becomes apparent in this moment that the two species have little to actually set them apart from one another.  Fear, hatred, and disgust are traits only developed through instruction and negative experience. If only the grown-ups had this much insight!

This burst of joy only lasts for a few minutes, but it effectively sets the tone behind one of the central themes running deep within Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:  history has a way of repeating itself.  Though it’s set sometime in the future, the things that happen in this film are timeless in nature.  Replace the dichotomy of apes and humans with a post-20th century nightly news report, and shades of the Gaza conflict, Rwandan genocide, and Apartheid begin to peak though.

All of this is strange praise when you really consider that this is a movie about warring factions of apes and humans.  Under different circumstances, the premise is actually pretty stupid–chimps on horseback with guns?  Sounds like a parody, right? And if you take Tim Burton’s lousy attempt at a 2001 reboot into consideration, it has been presented as such in the past.  Thankfully, the general idea behind the new Apes franchise was set into successful motion with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which gave the “civilized ape” concept a believable sci-fi movie backbone (it’s an alzheimers-correcting drug that allows the apes to do what they do).  It’s funny how reasonable explanations can make even the most ridiculous proposition an effective allusion of real-world problems.

Reluctant compassion exists inside both parties, notably with Caesar, the de-facto leader of the apes.  Brilliantly portrayed once again by the excellent Andy Serkis, Caesar is a chimpanzee who initially provides little trust towards the humans.  He knows that they aren’t all bad–we saw in Rise of the Planet of the Apes that he was raised amongst them, after all–but he has seen the dark side of humanity, as well.  He knows that certain humans, given their power, are unkind to those who are different.  Despite his suspicions, he allows a group of people to access an electricity-providing dam beyond the ape kingdom in hopes that they will leave his species alone when all is said and done.

This doesn’t sit well with Koba (Toby Kebbell), the second-in-command ape.  He feels that allowing humans into ape territory represents weakness, and therefore executes a series of events to prevent any future peaceful interactions between the humans.  Though he’s the antagonist, his dark instincts are not without reason: prior to the ape uprising, Koba was a lab-chimp.  Before getting rescued and “smartened” by Caesar, he was tortured and experimented on.  He has been given no effective reason to trust humans, and so he doesn’t.

The humans aren’t without their glaring faults either.  One of their leaders, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), shows willingness to exist alongside the apes.  His sentiment isn’t shared with another leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who considers the apes to be nothing more than wild animals who need to be put into their respective place.  Then there’s the gun-happy Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who is so terrified of things different from himself that he end ups carrying a restricted firearm in the name of baseless, paranoid fear.  These are not movie-world caricatures; they act and react as real people would in similarly extraordinary circumstances–they behave like we would.

Things quickly spiral out of control for everyone involved, but director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) keeps a tight lid  on the non-stop ape-on-human action and doesn’t let the ensuing chaos translate into an incomprehensible mess.  It’s a very different film when compared to its predecessor–the scope is much bigger, the ideas a little grander and the stakes far higher this time around.  But despite its gargantuan ambitions, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is primarily a story about the political differences between Caesar and Koba, and how they ineffectively go through the motions to remedy their ideological differences.

Here’s the thing: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is chock full of social commentary, but it’s never preachy.  Echoes of racism and modern-day gun violence are effectively addressed, but never delivered with a heavy hand.  Every single thematic element is presented through narrative, and these ideas stick with you because the movie is thrilling from beginning to end.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an emotional roller coaster ride with complex characters and some of the best non-stop action this side of a Marvel outing.  It’s the best Planet of the Apes installment yet.  It’s also probably the best movie of the year.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Theatrical Trailer

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