Final Rating: 8.7/10
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of those surprising prequels that does a damn fine job; It is also a rare reboot that showcases the possibility of a better series than the original. Not to say that it was better than the very first Planet of the Apes, not even by a mile, but it showed a capability of something great. Directed by Rupert Wyatt, it showed a world burned away by a contagious disease and the uprising of the apes that were formerly tested on, encaged and treated beneath humans. That is true save for the occasional exception to the rule– this was James Franco’s character– that would treat apes as equals. With Franco’s ape Caesar (Andy Serkis), we saw an ape that could pinpoint a different side of how humans work: Not all humans are evil. With the majority of the world wiped out and a sequel to come, many of us were excited to see where these open doors would lead. This time, however, Rupert Wyatt was nowhere to be found. With such a short time between films, Wyatt was scared that the sequel to this prequel would fall flat. Leaving with him was James Franco. Presumably, with most of the world wiped out, many people attached to the first film would not be here. This follow up to a largely surprising blockbuster seemed to be doomed. With Andy Serkis still here as Caesar, we now have Matt Reeves (known for Cloverfield and Let Me In) directing this new film and its upcoming sequel (the third film in a presumed trilogy). With all of that backstory and uncertainty, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not only a terrific film, it is also better than the already great first film in this series.
There is very little to worry about here. From an artistic standpoint, Dawn is breathtaking. You see vegetation sprouting everywhere and nature suffocating the buildings that once resembled civilization. The CGI is spectacular, with some shots seeming far too real for comfort (I recall a scary close up of the ape Koba’s face that appeared impossible to be generated, and yet it clearly was). In terms of making a realistic environment, Dawn has carried off from its previous story ten years after the first part ends with such ease. We see many sights that we can recall from the first movie; They are stricken with the startling aging process caused by abandonment, though. We see what little of humanity is left, and it is a madhouse. A massive crowd stuck within a small area in San Francisco resembles a group of maggots feeding upon decomposing flesh. The last of human civilization isn’t hopeful: It’s doomed. With the apes beginning to talk, especially the two smartest apes within this tribe (Caesar and Koba), we get a very clever use of dialogue here. Only specific words are said, but the intents these apes have is always crystal clear. With their barbaric voices, howling one word at a time like a ritualistic chant, not only do these words work as punctuation points, they also work as fear inducing commands. Almost every line said by an ape in this movie, no matter what ape it is, is said with conviction, emotion and determination. Almost every piece of dialogue said by an ape here is striking. They also converse, mostly so, with sign language, and their facial expressions connect to their hands and their messages like puppet masters controlling their subject.
This world created is fully engaging, but so is the story it tells. It embarks on the common zombie story we’re getting pretty sick of nowadays but through refreshing eyes. What if these beings that take over the world aren’t really hostile? What if they only attack us because we threaten them? We get an observation on the nonfunctional reaction between two societies that feel threatened by one another: Both hoping for survival, neither more powerful than the other. The humans are the zombies for the apes as they strip the apes of their new civilization’s working order. The apes are the zombies for the humans as the new species that took over the world they once knew. Caesar has his family he’s protecting and his society that depends on him. With the humans, we have two people trying to fix the crawling masses instead of one iconic figure: Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman. Oldman is the leader of the last of humanity, while Clarke is the conch shell that helps speak the good of mankind speak to the apes. Clarke is protective of his family and the many like his, while Oldman wants to save humanity as leaders of every essential part of contemporary history: He refuses this new wave of a more powerful species overtaking all that humans made.
With wonderful performances, a familiar-yet-enhanced story and amazing pacing, Dawn is a great film to begin with. What rings it as truly memorable is its absolutely exceptional directing. With a handful of scenes that will not leave my mind even now (SPOILERS: Koba’s last interaction with the two guards, the amazing shot from atop a tank and the masterful one-take shot of Clarke evading apes and explosions /SPOILERS), the entire movie was one large rush. It has a stance on how society works and it sticks to it. It has a vision of our possible future and it engages us fully. It had a mission to continue this trilogy that already had a high bar and it set the bar even higher. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes isn’t just a good sequel: It’s what has made this reboot a promising trilogy the most.