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

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Directed by: Matt Reeves

Premise: A sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A decade after the events of the previous film, a “simian flu” has killed off most of humanity. A colony of people living in the ruins of San Francisco come into conflict with a tribe of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar (voice of Andy Serkis). The apes and the humans have an uneasy truce but peace is threatened by distrust on both sides.

What Works: The Planet of the Apes series is one of the high points of Hollywood science fiction. Although the series has a reputation for being campy, the original films are an impressive collection of smart and subversive pictures that mixed mainstream action adventure filmmaking with smart storytelling, compelling characters, and lightly veiled social commentary. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continues most of the best elements of the original series and of the 2011 reboot and it is arguably the best entry in the series since the 1968 original. As in those earlier pictures, the filmmakers of Dawn satisfy the needs of a contemporary studio tent pole while giving the audience much more than they have come to expect from these kinds of movies. As a matter of filmmaking craft, Dawn is effective and frequently visually stunning. Director Matt Reeves, who had previously helmed Cloverfield, presents a post-apocalyptic world populated by talking apes and manages to make that scenario credible. The success is due to a variety of factors; the production design looks lived-in, the action sequences are carried out with a degree of restraint, and the makeup and special effects are done convincingly. Like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the simians of Dawn are computer generated characters and what is really remarkable about this film is how natural everything looks and the subtly of the digital performances. At no point while watching the film do the apes seem like special effects; they are characters who are as real as the flesh and blood human actors around them. The impressive technical accomplishments of Dawn are matched by its storytelling. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does what a sequel should, which is to expand the story world, escalate the conflicts, and push the characters to new places. Like some of the earlier Apes films, the story of Dawn is about power relationships among humans and simians and the struggle for power plays out intelligently with the characters’ fortunes turning on the choices that they make. It’s especially notable that no characters of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are merely good or evil; although some certainly end up evil, the characters have a moral complexity that is beyond most sci-fi adventure movies. This is the complexity of great storytelling.

What Doesn’t: There are two respects in which Dawn fails to live up to the legacy of the Planet of the Apes series. The first is the lack of female characters. Virtually the entire cast of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is male and the few females are marginalized in the story. This is no different than a lot of Hollywood films but it’s inconsistent with the legacy of this series. One of the strongest and most interesting characters from the original films was Zira, a hardheaded but compassionate chimpanzee played by Kim Hunter, and the Planet of the Apes series featured women in other prominent roles. Even Tim Burton’s much maligned 2001 remake featured several women as part of the central cast. Given that history, it’s disappointing to see female characters sidelined in this film. The other issue is the ending of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The conclusion of each film in the original series was downbeat but the unhappy endings usually packed a thematic and political punch. The finale of Dawn is somewhat ambiguous but nowhere near as memorable or as shocking as the ending of the original Planet of the Apes.

Bottom Line: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a terrific film and for the most part it exceeds its predecessor and tells a smart and thrilling story. This film ought to be ranked with The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, and Aliens among the great sequels.

Episode: #500 (July 20, 2014)