FilmReview

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ Review: One of the Best Sci-Fi Movies of the Decade

Ryan Smythe ’15 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

A still from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.
A still from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

What would happen to the human race if, instead of an extraterrestrial invasion, our very own medicines wiped out nearly the entire population while simultaneously creating a second sentient species on Earth? This is, in the most basic sense, the premise of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It takes place about 10 years after the events of 2011’s hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and shows the successful construction of an ape colony lead by the original ape Caesar, played through motion capture by Andy Serkis. He, along with his advisor Koba (Toby Kebbell), and his son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), make up the core of the CG ape cast.

The dynamic between the three follows a fairly conventional path, with Caesar attempting to impart as much wisdom as he can to his adolescent son, while Koba acts as the confidant for all of Blue Eye’s doubts and concerns, a relationship that builds a foundation of trust to be exploited. These three characters play out a very Shakespearean-esque story, complete with lies, deceit, and betrayal. It does not draw from one story as completely as The Lion King did from Hamlet, but it comes particularly close in certain places, even drawing from the Disney adaptation by giving Koba a face full of scars.

A still from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.
A still from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

These scars tie back to the first movie, where the apes live their lives in laboratories, tested on, or as Koba considered it, tortured. His fear and hatred of humans stems from the experiences tied to his scars, and, while not the strongest theme in this movie, bring up the question of how far animal testing can really go without becoming inhumane. In the world created by writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback, and director Matt Reeves, it is impossible to call these apes anything other than “human.” While not physiologically accurate, their entire culture, relationships, interactions, the sentience, and community structure that humanity rests upon are so similar that, if not for the hair covering the ape bodies, would be indistinguishable from a human colony.

The actual human colony in Dawn comes across as incredibly similar, if less developed from a story standpoint. Little is shown of the day-to-day functions of this electricity-starved last refuge of humanity, other than their constant attempts to contact the outside world. Lead by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the two came from some kind of military background before coming together to found the colony in San Francisco. Malcolm plays the part of ambassador to the ape colony, along with his new wife Ellie (Keri Russell), and his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Kirk Acevedo, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Enrique Murciano in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Photo Credit: David James/Twentieth Century Fox.
Kirk Acevedo, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Enrique Murciano in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Photo Credit: David James/Twentieth Century Fox.

Of the cross-species relationships formed, the best developed one is between Caesar and Malcolm, with Alexander serving as a somewhat competent way to convey the parity between the apes and humans, and Ellie repairing relationships by using her medical expertise to care for various important members of the ape colony. Ellie and Alexander do allow Malcolm to come across as a family man, but exist only to give Malcolm the depth expected from main characters and not as characters themselves.

Yet the entire human cast is secondary to the ape cast, almost mirroring each other perfectly, with the human side distinctly less developed and two-dimensional. Each side has a level-headed leader, an adolescent child that grows in competence over the course of the movie, and an antagonistic second-in command that facilitates the conflict in the movie. It is the second-in-command characters that provide the most excitement for the duration of the movie, making it worth the audience’s time to root for the two main characters. The amount of fear the two are slowly consumed by creates dramatic obstacles to overcome, and even more amazing scenes for Reeves and his cinematographer Michael Seresin to shoot.

Gary Oldman in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Photo Credit: David James/Twentieth Century Fox.
Gary Oldman in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Photo Credit: David James/Twentieth Century Fox.

This idea of fear is where the heart of the movie lies, both on the human and ape side, though they take shape in very different ways. For the humans, it is the prospect of losing all power again in a matter of weeks, once the diesel fuel runs out. It would plunge the currently peaceful colony back into the lawless rioting that plagued the remainder of humanity once the virus wiped out the majority of the population, something Malcolm and Dreyfus fear above all else.

Instead of a ticking clock to build tension for the apes, it is the discovery of humans that sows the seeds of fear. Born from the scars given to him in human laboratories, Koba stands at the head of this fear, anxious to fight back against the newly discovered colony. Opposed by Caesar and his message of peace, Koba works to create a culture of fear, attempting to rally others behind him.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, despite lacking strong human characters, produces some of the most memorable characters of any kind of 2014. Serkis, as is his wont, sets the standard for motion capture actors with the help of Weta Digital, the visual effects department for the movie. Kebbell’s Koba matches Serkis step-for-step, providing the movie with what should become a legendary villain. Together, they provide the foundation for one of the best movies of 2014, and one of the best sci-fi movies of the decade.

Overall Grade: A

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