I can honestly say that I have never been so emotionally affected by a CG animated character like I was by the apes in this film. This is surely the pinnacle of this kind of motion capture technology. I might even want to start a campaign to get Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar in this, an Oscar nomination for best actor. He damn well deserves it.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens with a quick montage of events that take place right after the first installment of this reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. 10 years have passed and the virus that was enleashed at the end of that last film has done it’s worst by killing off most of the humans on Earth. The group of apes, led by Caesar, in the last film have taken up residence in the forests of Marin County north of San Francisco and are living a relatively idyllic life. But soon a small group of humans stumble upon them as they try to get to a hydro-electric plant to try to get power to the small band of people that live in the ruins of San Francisco. As you might expect, things soon go awry and conflict breaks out between human and ape in a battle for control of the planet.
Most of the focus here is on the apes and that’s ok. It’s interesting that we are given so much to connect with emotionally with the characters that are supposed to be the so-called antagonists. You can sort of understand each side’s motivation so as events unfold, you eventually can’t really say whether the humans or the apes are completely to blame.
There is so much depth of expression in Andy Serkis, and all the actors that play the apes, and the CGI is so good, that I almost forgot I was watching animated characters. Caesar is so well developed. He is now facing the pressures of being the leader of his kind. His experiences being in the care of a human from the previous film mkae him trust them more, even make him able to care for them. But this is in conflict with an underlying sense of uncertainty and distrust that some of the other apes feel toward humans. His desire to try to work with people and give them the benefit of the doubt is challenged throughout the film. You truely feel his struggle.
In addition to Serkis, Toby Kebbel plays Koba, Caesar’s right hand, embittered by humans treatment of him in labratories, is a formidable presence and the obvious source of trouble to come. Karin Konoval plays Maurice, the large orangutan that teaches the ape youths. Nick Thurston plays Blue eyes, Caesar’s son. And Judy Greer plays Cornelia, wife of Caesar, and one of the only female character leads here. One of my few complaints is that lack of female roles. But each one of the ape characters are brilliantly played and the CGI effects are eloquently fused with these performances to create fully realized beings. They’re just wonderful.
The only other downside here is that the human characters are not as fully rounded as the apes, though this isn’t as problematic as you might think. It really is more about the apes anyway. But, that said, they all still make the most of their roles. Jason Clarke is Malcolm, an ex-architect that leads the small group that asks for Caesar’s help in getting the power plant up and running. He is joined by Kerri Russell, his MD girlfriend, and Kodi Smit-McFee as Clarke’s sensitive son. And the leader of the human camp is Dreyfus, played by Gary Oldman, who gets less screen time than you’d think, but still plays a significant role.
Dreyfus is to Koba as Malcom is to Caesar. Each play a mirror part to the other in their respective species. There is a lot of motivation regarding fear, distrust, animal cruelty, and the differing views on conflict resolution. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) handles everything here so well. And in the technical aspect, he and cinematographer Michael Seresin offer some incredible sequences, i.e., check out the shots from the point of view of a tank turret. Wowzers!
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes isn’t perfect, but it may be the closest film to perfect I’ve seen this summer. I’m comfortable with four and a half kittenhands. Yes, I enjoyed it that much. I can only hope that the next installment in this series will be as engaging. It’s proof that Hollywood really can, when someone puts their mind to it, make a big-budget summer blockbuster that has depth and soul as well as being exciting and entertaining.
~ Neil T. Weakley, your average movie-goer, kind of surprised that this is one of the best films of the summer so far. Pleasantly surprised.