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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 28.95%
Average: 5.26%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 10.53%

4 reviews, 14 user ratings

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
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by Brett Gallman

"The Battle for the Planet of the Apes we've always wanted."
5 stars

If “Planet of the Apes” isn’t the greatest sci-fi film franchise (and compelling arguments could easily be made for that it is), it’s at least the most underestimated. Considering Fox cranked out four sequels in as many years following the success of the landmark original, it’d be easy to assume the series was a cheap byproduct of Hollywood sequelitis; however, it managed to stay sharply topical as it shifted from nuclear parable to allegorical musings on the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam. When it re-emerged with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” it did so like a phoenix from the ashes of Tim Burton’s poorly-received (but not completely unmerited) remake by simultaneously adapting to resisting the age of the summer blockbuster. Its evolution continues with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” a film that uses its predecessor less as a blueprint and more as a launching pad to further explore the dramatic potential of a franchise centered on a bunch of apes.

Director Matt Reeves does this and so much more; my knee-jerk reaction is to declare “Dawn” the most human of the bunch despite mankind’s absence from the film early on. With the exception of a prologue recapping the fallout of the previous film (via news clips), no humans appear for the lengthy opening sequence, which finds alpha-ape Caesar content with the existence he’s carved out with his fellow simians. We watch their itinerary, which includes hunting and announcing the birth of Caesar’s newest son. Most of these interactions are wordless and feature sign-language interactions between the apes, and it’s damn fascinating to watch these creatures, which have been brought to life by an incredible combination of performance and technology.

But you’re never really thinking about that: the effects of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” are so awe-inspiring that they might actually transcend awe and just blend in seamlessly with the proceedings. We’ve seen convincing CGI characters before, but this truly feels like next-level stuff with Reeves at the helm; rather than constantly invite the audience’s jaw to drop, he casually introduces them to this quiet little world, one that’s full of small, subtle moments of sheer humanity. Without ever seeing an actual human, it’s remarkably easy to invest in the semi-utopia that’s set to be disrupted when men finally appear.

Their intrusions are often jarring and punctuated by gunshots, with the first instance involving a skittish pistol-toting hothead (Kirk Acevedo), who opens fire on Caesar’s older son and friend. It’s the apes’ first encounter with humans in over two years thanks to the simian super-flu that’s claimed most of the globe. San Francisco’s survivors have forged a nearby post and require the use of a dam resting in the heart of the ape abode in order to restore power and contact the outside order.

That’s the extent of the film’s scope, which is refreshingly small: most of the action is confined to two locations (the human and ape outposts), a far cry from typical global-apocalyptic blockbuster fare. The stakes are no less small, however—the fate of the world is up for grabs, after all. Somehow, that still manages to feel like a footnote since the film is grounded in such an intimate, dramatic milieu: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a tale of soldiers and generals, fathers and sons, friends and enemies, jealousy and loyalty—it’s like Shakespeare with primates, a tragedy lodged in a delicately-stacked house of cards built on the interpersonal strife between and among the warring factions here.

The construction allows for a nuanced conflict that finds both sides teeming with misguided ambition and thwarted hopes for peace, with characters paralleling one another during the struggle. Opposite Caesar is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the co-founder of San Francisco’s refugee camp; a stoic, level-headed man, he seeks to make peace with the apes rather than take the dam by force. Since the film’s sympathies immediately rest with the apes, Clarke’s turn is arguably the most pivotal in the film; without a decent human representative, the film would practically encourage the audience to revel in mankind’s oblivion. However, Clarke infuses Malcolm with good-hearted dignity to immediately establish pathos for humanity.

As such, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the rare summer blockbuster that doesn’t seek to invite constant awe or spectacle. You’re not counting down the minutes until the next big shootout or action sequence during idle chitchat because the dialogue and quiet moments are anything but idle. The film’s most affecting moments come during its moments of peace and reconciliation; there’s a stretch of the film that’s set entirely inside of a house that features small but profound moments that are more resounding than many instances of big-scale spectacle.

To spend an entire blockbuster hoping for peace instead of world-breaking calamity isn’t just refreshing—I kind of want it to be the norm for these types of films to find the immense joy in simply seeing lights or hearing an old, familiar tune. In a landscape committed to casting the earth in an apocalyptic pall (the latest three films I’ve seen in theaters have all been preoccupied with dystopias), “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” seeks the virtues of peace.

But in true “Apes” fashion, the ideal isn’t meant to be. Both Caesar and Malcolm must contend with ideologues hawking for war. For Caesar, it’s former prison-mate Koba (Toby Kebbell), the scarred, savage ape who’s evolved into equal parts Machiavellian schemer and Shakespearian silver-tongued seducer. Koba believes Caesar to be too trusting of the humans, so he looks to ensure his leader lives up to his namesake by engineering his downfall. Kebbell holds his own with Serkis: his Koba is ferocious yet funny, menacing, yet charismatic, an all-too perfect collection of contradictions that speaks to the level of nuance Reeves shoots for.

The same can be said of Koba’s human counterpart, Dreyfus, who co-founded the human outpost. Unlike Malcolm, he touts a scorched-earth approach to completely eliminate the apes and take the dam by brute force. Both he and Koba qualify as the film’s villains, if you want to call them that—it’s more apt to think of them as deeply-wounded characters looking to claim (or reclaim) what’s theirs and lashing out in the wake of loss. You can understand where each is coming from even though they’re advocating for the extermination of the other side.

When these ideologies clash and call for Reeves to deliver the big-budget spectacle, he does so with gusto. His camerawork during the battle sequences is assured and fluid, with some of the street-level action recalling previous efforts at co-opting guerilla filmmaking (Reeves's own "Cloverfield" comes to mind, as does Cauron's "Children of Men"). In keeping with the rest of the film, two-pronged climax is actually quite small scale that mostly focuses on the conflicts between the four leads: while Caesar and Koba duke it out at precarious heights (at one point, they go Thunderdome on each other as they swing on giant industrial chains), Malcolm and Dreyfus’s conflict comes to a potentially explosive head. The stakes remain huge, of course, and co-editors William Hoy and Stan Salfas’s cutting of the action is propulsive and intense precisely because those stakes have been well-established.

The fallout similarly resists the typical summer blockbuster mode, but it’s also in the “Apes” tradition—it’s tough, thought-provoking, and finds a basis in real-world parallels (that it’s terrifying and heartbreaking whenever someone brandishes a firearm speaks volumes about its views on gun control). “Dawn” isn't quite as incendiary as “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” but it’s a stark look at the realities of conflict and war, particularly when it involves two warring factions who can’t reason with one another. It’s a story as old as mankind and one that continues to resonate. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is an especially bruising look at how even idealists can be nearly crushed under the weight of reality. Caesar is a reluctant hero in the purest sense: he’d much rather just tend to his hovel and live in peace rather than go to war.

That you feel this deep, sincere struggle within him is a testament not only to the incredible craftsmanship on display but also Reeves’s willingness to make it the story: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a tremendous film primarily about people—their triumphs, their failings, their ambitions, their foibles. Most of them just happen to be apes, but the lines between man and animal are consistently blurred all the way to Reeves’s stunning final shot, which track in on a pair of weary but resolute simian eyes.

The anguish, fear, and anger on display in this closing moment provide a potent burst of humanity that feels somewhat atypical for a summer blockbuster, but it’s just right for this series, which continues to evolve and thrive as smart, fascinating pulp. Where most films of this ilk opt for big spectacle, the “Apes” franchise tackles big questions and isn’t afraid to deal with tough answers.

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originally posted: 07/11/14 14:00:09
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User Comments

2/13/17 morris campbell better than the 2001 planet of the apes better story 4 stars
10/15/15 Soda so much depth, especially with the apes. love it. 5 stars
6/08/15 Bents Pretty good - Cain and Franco made 'Rise' the better installment 4 stars
11/26/14 Lsp4 Okay film 4 stars
7/22/14 FireWithFire Apes = Black Racists = Destruction = Detroit 1 stars
7/21/14 David Green Simply a brilliant movie 5 stars
7/18/14 adam warlock updates the old series nicely 4 stars
7/18/14 mr.mike See it but skip the 3-D. 4 stars
7/17/14 al This movie is only for dumb apes. 1 stars
7/16/14 Brittany Petros Average, i should had waited to rent it. 3 stars
7/14/14 laura pretty average-apes stand in for soldiers 3 stars
7/12/14 Bob Dog Boring - - ridiculously overrated. 1 stars
7/12/14 jervaise brooke hamster I want to bugger Miley Cyrus. 5 stars
7/11/14 Turner Terrible film. Another one of these really 1 stars
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  11-Jul-2014 (PG-13)
  DVD: 02-Dec-2014


  DVD: 02-Dec-2014

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