Film Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Franchise reboot gets it mostly right, delivering sweeping action and deep questions

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes | B+

In his bestselling treatise Assholes: A Theory, author and philosopher Aaron James posits that assholes are defined by their unbridled arrogance and sense of entitlement. They consider themselves morally superior to others and reject all concerns and complaints to the contrary.

In Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Kirk Acevedo plays Carver, a human who defiantly rejects that the super-intelligent apes who saved his life can be trusted. As a sign of things to come, his irrational distrust ends up derailing a hard-won instance of détente. “I guess I’m the asshole,” he quips.

And if there’s one takeaway from Reeves’ surprisingly downbeat summer blockbuster it’s that it only takes one asshole to ruin the party — man or ape.

Following a pre-credit montage that fills us in on the devastating 10-year depopulation of mankind by viral plague, this sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes drops us into the forests of Marin County, outside the ruins of San Francisco. Here, the noble chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis once again acting via motion-capture), the same one who led the simian jailbreak in the successful 2011 film, has established both a loving family and a cooperative community of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. The humans haven’t been seen for years. Which means, of course, that a group of survivors, led by Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, shows up moments after that fact is stated.

If Dawn’s first 10 minutes are surprisingly calm, it’s clear that storms are a-brewing on the horizon, as a gunshot announces the arrival of a band of humans. Mankind, or the ragtag bunch that’s still alive, has ventured into ape territory in order to repair a small hydroelectric dam and jump-start San Francisco’s power grid. While Caesar, whose memories of humans include love and kindness, is willing to accommodate the human’s request, second-in-command Koba (Toby Kebbell) has only hatred for the species that tortured him as a scientific experiment. That mutinous anger and paranoia — matched by Acevedo’s itchy trigger finger and human leader Dreyfus’ (Gary Oldman) intolerance — sets the two races on a violent collision course.

Reeves, who established himself as an uncannily patient director with Cloverfield and the underrated Let Me In (a remake of the Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In), does a remarkable job of depicting the fragile relationship and delicate balance of power that develops between man and ape. The script, by Rick Jaffo, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback, provides a solid foundation for the director to masterfully twist the knife as the inevitability of an inter-species war grows. The embrace of violence and extremism is the real enemy here, and, rather than taking sides, we find ourselves taking sides within the sides. When was the last time you saw an action film that inspired a desire for peaceful coexistence?

Like any science fiction worth its salt, it’s all metaphor, of course — though only as generic as modern Hollywood will only allow. Feel free to take “human” and “ape” to mean Christian and Muslim … or black and white … or liberal and conservative.

Though Dawn ultimately delivers electrifying action in its third act, Reeves’ deliberately charts a queasy path toward disaster and tragedy rather than indulging in the moronic fist-pumping kineticism of Michael Bay. He wants the carnage to count, and rarely allows the movie’s colossal sense of spectacle to overwhelm the drama. And the Shakespearean-sized rift that convincingly develops between Caesar and Koba is proof of the enormous talents of the actors hidden beneath the film’s computer-generated effects.

Sure, many of the characters — particularly the dull humans — are undeveloped, and Dawn sometimes relies on clunky contrivance to get it out of tight corners, but it’s an impressive balancing act of artistic integrity and commercial instinct. And on the latter, Reeves’ delivers the goods. His depiction of military chaos and conflict is breathtaking. Whether it’s the high-flying acrobatics of chimp-against-chimp action, apes riding horses into battle, or the fury of man-on-primate gunplay, Dawn presents action with panache and punch. There’s even a bit of look-what-I-can-do indulgence as Koba takes control of a rotating tank turret, allowing the camera to strikingly capture the mayhem in a 360-degree sweep.

For all its confidence and richly conceived drama, the real question is whether Dawn of the Planet of the Apes lives up to the weird ethical and cautionary quandaries Rod Serling’s script presented in the original, Planet of the Apes. Though more serious in tone, it doesn’t carry quite the same social pretensions as that 1968 iconic oddity (and the sequels that followed). But as an exciting and reasonably intelligent reboot, it proves itself more than worthy.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is playing in theaters. It is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 130 minutes.

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