Cinematic Releases: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Matt Reeves delivers the best movie of the summer with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

"Alright. Things are about to
get a little weird around here."

Three years ago, director Rupert Wyatt pretty much accomplished the impossible: Not only did he give us a good Planet of the Apes film, but in fact, it was so good that it successfully washed away the nasty aftertaste of the Tim Burton reboot. That by itself would’ve been enough, but it was also the big surprise of that year. Three years later, we have been rewarded for our renewed faith.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes may very well prove to be the movie of the summer, and is the single best film of the franchise. It’s hard to imagine it getting better than this. This is not just a great film for the Apes canon—this is impeccably crafted science fiction. It’s a film that connects and engages on transcendent levels, a film that seeks to enthrall as well as excite. Matt Reeves, fresh off delivering the best American vampire film ever made, crafts sequences so riveting yet horrific, I would describe him as the anti-Michael Bay. He wants us to feel the consequences of war and chaos, not marvel at it.

Dawn begins with one of the most atmospheric pre-credit sequences in recent memory, as news archive footage explains that a super virus has all but eliminated the human race. Spiraling across the globe and showing all life coming to a screeching halt, the screen settles into complete silence and darkness before cueing the title. The note struck by this opening is simply perfect, and it sets the tone for a grim dystopia future shot beautifully by cinematographer Michael Seresin (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), brought to life through astonishing production design and flawless visual effects by WETA Digital.

"Touch our bananas and  you
might get a shot to the face."
We pick up ten years after the events that ended the previous film, with a small colony of humans that are desperate to kickstart an old hydropower dam in the redwood forest. They’re led by Gary Oldman, swapping out his snazzy Commissioner Gordon specs for a pair of rapist glasses and a megaphone. There’s only one small problem… Well, actually there’s a couple hundred of them, and they live right near the hub of the dam. They scream in tongues, are prone to violent outbursts, have an insatiable craving for bananas, and yet manage to be smarter than your average YouTube commenter by a significant margin.

True to his style as a director, Matt Reeves loves surprising his audience. The funny thing is, he surprises us by following through with his logic. There are events in Dawn that are shocking, frightening, or even funny. But Reeves is always playing by the rules; they just aren’t the same Hollywood rules we’re used to. While most directors are shaking the camera like it’s strapped to the paint mixer Bart Simpson used to prank his dad, Reeves isn’t afraid to lock his down and let us watch events transpire. This technique leads to one sequence involving a tank, and let me tell you: It’s an eye-popping stunner that leaves you breathless and begging for more. Reeves has proven with Let Me In and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that he is a force to be reckoned with, yet he’s not afraid to let his talent take a backseat to his characters.

"This is Commissioner Gordon.
Bane is working in cahoots with a
band of apes. We need Batman!"
Through the magic of motion capture, the apes in Dawn are compelling and so fully realized as characters that, despite the fact that they’re all just hairy chimps, it becomes easy to pick them out based on personality traits alone. Never before have CGI characters felt so real and integrated into the fabric of storytelling. There is a synergy of craftsmanship and performance that rises above any and all attempts that came before it. At the center of it all is Andy Serkis reprising his role as the lead ape, Caesar. When will someone at the Academy finally notice their head at their next colonoscopy, perform the necessary removal, and give this man the award consideration he deserves? From Gollum, to King Kong, and now Caesar, Serkis has become the one to prove that this is a true performance art form. If there was Oscar talk for his work in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, then just give him the award now—his performance here hits more notes and levels than all of his previous icons combined.

It’s a rare thing for a sequel to surpass its predecessor. In this year alone, we’ve been given The Raid 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and now Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It would seem there’s more than just the one brain being passed around Hollywood after all. I just hope the extra ones don’t have an expiration date.

-Blake O. Kleiner