Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Directed by Matt Reeves
Hail Caesar! The king of this summer’s blockbuster season is “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which combines low-brow action with high-brow Greek tragic themes. The screenwriting duo that brought us “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the predecessor that’s truly terrible in comparison, resurrected the “Apes” franchise into something worth cheering.
Caesar (created using a motion-capture Andy Serkis) now leads an ever-growing army of genetically modified apes (including his adult son), who are able to stand, talk, and fight like well-trained soldiers. Just miles away in what used to be San Francisco, one of the last remaining human refuges (led by human bullhorn Gary Oldman) is in desperate need of electricity, which ran out years ago. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), Ellie (Keri Russell), and Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) will try to reason with the apes to let them use a nearby damn for power, but trust is hard to come by and hotheads on both sides will ruin negotiations and lead to all-out war. Can trust and cooperation prevail, or will one side have to die for peace to exist on a planet at the dawn of total annihilation?
What’s the recipe for a delicious summer blockbuster? Well, I’d start with a big budget. Check. Add some incredible special effects. Check. A few recognizable names. Check. A booming musical accompaniment. Check. Action. Check. Emotion. Check. And…reflections of a classic Shakespearean tragedy? Well, check. You can’t watch “Dawn” without seeing the story of the original Caesar, Roman dictator Julius Caesar, paralleling with our own ape protagonist. Like every great tragedy, “Dawn” has themes of betrayal, duty to family and country, desperation…even regicide. It reflects the stories of so many oft-taught tragedies. The English major in me applauds “Dawn” for reaching even the most educated in the audience by mirroring a classic morality play while never losing the big-budget excitement of any great blockbuster. This script is good enough for me to forgive that dreadful James Franco “Apes” flop that came out three years ago, and enough to get me excited for the next sequels this duo’s gearing up for: aside from another, yet-untitled, “Apes” sequel, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver are already writing “Jurassic World” and the second and third “Avatar” sequels. Let’s hope they can incorporate intelligent story and head-spinning action into those anticipated scripts, too.
I’ve never liked motion-capture animation. I still don’t. As much as I’d like to see past it, I still just see a very humanlike Andy Serkis behind the thick fur and computer animation of Caesar. I respect Serkis for doing his research and mimicking the actual movements of an ape to the best of his abilities, but at the end of the day he’s still a human with human movements. But in “Dawn,” I get over it fast. Despite coming in with a distaste for the style, I couldn’t help but get drawn into the story and buy into the real emotions being conveyed by Caesar. In every way, he’s a real character with near-human emotions. You don’t watch a bunch of apes when you watch “Dawn”—you watch the closest things to human beings.
And the humans are just as good. Gary Oldman’s sole purpose is to rally the troops, but his charismatic dialogue and emotional displays are worthy of commendation. Clarke and Russell are cast perfectly—neither are huge names, so they have all the acting talent of an A-lister without the distracting face that takes us out of the story.
For its perfect balance of engrossing action and sophisticated story, “Dawn” is by far the best blockbuster of this young summer. And the big screen is the only place to capture the intensity of something this epic.