“Think before you act, son.” – Caesar, to his son Blue Eyes.
It is ten years after the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A global pandemic, along with self-destructive martial law and civil unrest, have wiped out 90% of Earth’s human population. And in Muir Woods, a sentient colony of apes are establishing a civilization of their own. When human survivors living in San Francisco encounter the apes, will peace or war prevail in the end? And, for another question, can this film live up to the brilliance of its predecessor?
The short answer is, well, not really… but it was certainly a tough act to follow. I’m afraid explaining why Dawn falls shorter will necessitate contrasting the two films, so before I do my duty and discuss Dawn as a distinct film on its own terms, I’ll get the SPOILER-tinged comparisons out of the way first. I apologize for the length of this, my first full-blown rant on this blog.
Rise vs. Dawn Rant Segment (with SPOILERS)
Okay, we have to talk about Koba. He’s the villain of Dawn. You know something that was pretty great in Rise? THERE WAS NO VILLAIN. I get it, Koba was tortured, and that sucks for him, but what it means for Dawn is that we’re stuck with this one-note villain with no real motivation other than to stir his own blood for violence. He loses the moral high ground of protecting his fellow apes when he starts f***ing shooting and murdering other apes!!! He’s just an id. That’s ALL. It’s just something like whiplash when, after Rise primed us to expect shades of grey, we get a character like Koba in the sequel. Let me tell you, it is so profoundly satisfying seeing Caesar call Koba out on his bullshit.
The broader problem with this sequel is that while Rise had a multi-layered emotional resonance in a story that felt fresh, Dawn feels like a much more stale and worn story. Dawn is a story of the Other, it’s about fragile peace and terrible war and it’s all things that aren’t particularly interesting when you get right down to it. It doesn’t play out badly, but replace some of the names and look at the underlying story and you don’t have anything special. In Rise, we were following the unique emotional tug and pull within Caesar, and external skirmishes that never felt gratuitous because we were engaged on both sides of the conflict. The climax of Rise was a twist on monster movies, with complex emotions being played with. The war in Dawn, and especially Koba’s place in it, just feels like a big downer. Don’t get me wrong, the spectacle is stunning, but jeez! And what are they going to do in the next sequel? Just have a pure war movie? God, I hope not. Think of something better! It’s like Rise was this fantastic set-up for sequels that have written themselves into a corner, because what can come of this situation but desperate violence? Anyways, I’ll calm down now.
Dawn on its own terms
I appreciate the lengths to which the apes are focused on here. We get an excellent sense of their fledgling society, and Andy Serkis brings incredible weight to the role of ape leader Caesar in his motion-capture performance. Serkis gets top billing in this film, and boy howdy does he deserve it. His performance is passionate and understated at the same time. And he made me tear up near the end. Hats off to you, Mr. Serkis. The film is bookended by extreme close-up shots of Caesar’s eyes, poetically playing off of the events of the film very well. The film’s most indelible images indeed belong to the apes. This is a film where apes gallop on horses and fire machine guns. At the same time!
But this purposeful focus on the apes makes the human side of things suffer a bit by comparison. The human cast in this film don’t suffer from inadequate screen time, but they do suffer from inadequate interest. Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, blandly likable Jason Clarke; the human characters in this film are, well, fine, but nothing more. No human role is very meaty to begin with, and even with the actors giving it the old college try, they still don’t make much of an impact.
Getting back to the good, you ironically see more of San Francisco in this film, after the apocalypse, than you did in Rise. It’s a very engaging device for those familiar with the city. The war set pieces, despite my issues ranted about above, are stunning. The motion-capture is fantastic. Michael Giacchino delivers a solid score ranging from controlled cacophony to his trademark piano work.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, though a lot less nuanced than its predecessor, remains a solid film. Excuse the length of my rant on some of my issues with the film, but these are opinions I stand behind. Looking forward, I really, really hope the next installment in 2017 goes for the unexpected. But one thing I will expect is for Andy Serkis to remain amazing. The main takeaway from Dawn is his performance, and it makes up for other shortcomings in this technologically accomplished effort. A weak 7/10.
P.S.: In this film, Jason Clarke gets some thespian training as a figure of post-apocalyptic human authority, in a world where there is a threat of humans being caged like cattle. He’ll put all that to use when he plays John Connor in Terminator Genisys. And speaking of that (bad) title, it instantly brings to mind the San Francisco biotechnology company Gen-Sys, prominently featured in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and casting a shadow on the Dawn.