Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is sorta the prequel to Tim Burton’s sucky 2001 version of Planet of the Apes, which is a reboot of Frank Schaffner’s seminal 1968 original film Planet of the Apes, starring Charlton Heston… which spawned a string of really bad sequels throughout the 1970’s… which is based on the French novel La Planete des Singes by Pierre Boulle. Confused yet? Long story short, intelligent apes conquer the world and humans have to deal with it. Cue overacting and catchphrases, that’s basically it.
The best sci-fi stories use the genre as an allegory to talk about what’s happening in current society. What was unique about 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that, in addition to having some awesome ape effects, the movie is on some level an allegory about modern issues like stem cell research and DNA sequencing. Sadly, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes sorely lacks this human element.
What Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does have is some of the best, if not the best, use of computer animation and motion capture in any movie to date. The special effects in this movie really are that good. The opening scene of the film features an extended sequence featuring a couple of dozen apes hunting deer whilst simultaneously fighting a bear, and it is very difficult to tell what was shot practically and what was added in via motion capture and animation. Andy Serkis and his team of mocap actors do an incredible job of making sentient and intelligent apes look believable and almost “human” on screen.
Ironically, it’s the human element that really drags this movie down. The central human goal in the movie is to build a dam… that’s it. In order to that, they need to find a way to coexist with the apes (spoiler alert: they can’t). Once things fall apart, it’s on like Donkey Kong (literally). Violence and explosions ensue and the movie inevitably builds to it’s cacophonous and overwrought conclusion. Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) and Keri Russell (The Americans) do a good job of trying to inject some heart into a pretty thin script, but the biggest missed opportunity is wasting Gary Oldman (Immortal Beloved, True Romance, Leon: The Professional) in what basically amounts to a bit part.
Director Matt Reeves was said to be influenced by Shakespearean tragedy in his approach to this film. What’s truly tragic is that in a time where 300 or 400 animators and motion capture actors can make CGI apes take on human-like characteristics, 3 (three!) screenwriters can’t come up with a solid script and a climax that doesn’t involve punching and explosions.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes really shines in it’s seamless and incredibly believable realization of talking, intelligent and human-like apes… for better or for worse, for that reason alone it’s noteworthy.