Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
A few weeks later than intended, I got to watch this film. When it came out, I was eager to see it, enthused by the reviews of it as an intelligent action film. Over the weeks, it’d dropped down my pecking order of films to watch but it was the most conveniently timed showing of any film available, so Dawn… it was.

I’d enjoyed the first film in this reboot, Rise… , but it hadn’t been really great, just good enough to set the scene, so it was really up to this one to lay down a marker of how the series would develop.

The story opens ten years after the plague unleashed on the humans in the first movie, with a cleverly mixed montage of real and fictional news footage to set the scene of human civilizational collapse, and then we switch to the ape community, a terrifically realised treetop “Ape City”. The apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) haven’t seen any humans for two years and have started to believe they have all died out, while starting to build their own civilization. Apes can talk – well, many of them – though most communicate through sign language, and the community is starting to create an identifiable and unique culture.

We follow this community for a while, including a hunt in which Caesar nearly loses his young son, Bright Eyes before being rescued by his friend Koba (Toby Kebbell). Koba is a laboratory experiment survivor, and is a more aggressive character than Caesar, though Bright Eyes leans towards Koba’s point of view. Into this world stumble a small group of humans, one of whom, in panic, shoots Bright Eyes’ friend Ash.

Caesar lets the humans return across the remains of the Golden Gate Bridge, to their newly formed and precarious community within the ruins of San Fransisco, in order to prevent a war with the humans, telling them not to return but the humans desperately need the power of a hydroelectric dam located on the Apes’ side of the river, before their fuel runs out. The ape and human communities are nicely balanced, each with their pacific and militaristic wings, and all having their justifications for their stance, as they see it. The human ‘hawks’, such as the leader of the humans, Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman) see the apes as responsible for the disease that wiped out more than 90% of humanity; the apes remember being caged and, in the case of chimps like Koba, having been experimented on. The ‘doves’ in the human camp, led by our human heroes engineer Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and CDC doctor Ellie (Keri Russell), realise that the chimps were unwitting and innocent vectors for the disease which had been created by humans. For his part, Caesar has seen more of humans than any of the other apes, including having been raised by them, and realises they/we are not all sadistic slavers. Nonetheless, the pressures towards conflict are strong and the doves have their work cut out to prevent a total war between species.

The movie is intelligent, raising general issues of sectarian and inter-community violence and, especially, trust but it is not overly po-faced and remembers that it is there to entertain us. The special effects and action sequences are really spectacular, quite a few notches up from the (already impressive) previous film, and all the more engaging for my having engaged with the characters, on all sides, and caring what happens.

Not my favourite film of the year so far (Once, Frank and We Are the Best, at least, were more fun) but it’s up there.

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