In one of the finest episodes of Futurama, Bender is told by the voice of God that ‘when you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all’. This is a quote that can be leveled at the genuinely phenomenal technology powering Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – sequel to 2011’s surprisingly good reboot/prequel for a previously sullied franchise – as eventually you will stop noticing just how real the titular primates look and then have to remind yourself that they were not, in fact, a physical part of the splendid world created by director Matt Reeves and the team at Weta Digital. Never before has a film integrated its effects so brilliantly, and yet non-flashily, into its story, and that alone is a staggering achievement. No expense or effort was spared in making believable environments, with the film combining mo-cap, location shooting and hand-built sets in a way that has never before been attempted by film-makers.
Whilst it would be very easy to fill an entire review gushing over these aspects of Dawn, great technology does not make a great film without anything to back it up. Luckily, the script and cast do a very solid job of engaging the audience as well as explore some themes (animal cruelty, the placement of humanity as the world’s dominant species etc) which other blockbusters tend to ignore. Taking place over a decade after the first film, we join an entirely new group of humans (James Franco’s character from Rise was presumably killed in the interim), led by peaceful family man Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and the angrier, more military Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). This less than merry band is attempting to make do in a world ravaged by disease, chaos and, ironically for a film so indebted to the power of computers, almost entirely electronics free. In an attempt to restore power to their colony, Malcolm and his family make their way to a nearby dam, disturbing the ape colony, a utopian fortress of wooden spikes and co-existence, in the process. Naturally, the presence of each side disturbs the other and tensions rise to the point of an all-out war between the species, leading to some excellent set-pieces, a particular highlight of which involves an ape on horseback jumping through a wall of fire shooting a machine gun. It’s a visual which works a lot better in practice than that description might suggest.
The story is pretty solid and allows for good character moments, highlighting the similarity of Malcolm and Caesar (Andy Serkis’s brilliantly realised lead ape) as both of them attempt to do what is best for their families. However, I found that a couple of parts could have done with more explanation (how do the apes immediately know the intimate details of the human guns, for example) and one of the human characters exists only to be a blindly idiotic ass who constantly endangers everyone around him in a highly frustrating manner. These are not major issues though, and the performances are pretty good throughout, with Gary Oldman (almost always the finest actor in any film he takes part in) given more to do emotionally than his previous blockbuster work (Batman, Robocop, Harry Potter) has allowed. But to focus too much on the human element would be to miss the point. The clear stars here are the apes, most notably Caesar and Koba (Toby Kebbell), a scarred, angry victim of human lab testing. Now speaking in fractured English, the apes’ communication is suddenly far more relatable to an audience and the absolutely fantastic work by the mo-capped actors lends real depth not only to the way their apes look and sound (Kebbell, for example, manages to shine through as evidently him, even whilst playing a chimpanzee) but also to them as characters.
One of the most commendable aspects of Dawn is that the are very few clean divides between good and bad. Whilst Koba does eventually descend into villainy, his anger is understandable and his methods are, arguably, justified, given the suffering that humans have inflicted upon him and his fellow apes. Everyone else is more grey and, eventually, most characters’ motivations are based around family. Dreyfus, who had been presented in the marketing as a stereotypical gun-toting bad guy, is in fact far more nuanced, a man who has lost everything and is frightened by the way his world looks, but still open to suggestions from Malcolm and, ultimately, he could be rooted for, even when he threatens Caesar’s life.
Overall, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a technologically astounding film, often with the brains to match its effects brawn. It is exciting and atmospheric (the foggy setting of San Francisco was a great choice) and whilst it inevitably suffers from the inherent weaknesses of prequels (we all know where this world is headed and it’s not promising for the humans) the story and characters are well-written and well-acted. It could well end up being the summer’s best blockbuster.