Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t play by the damn dirty rules of Hollywood blockbuster sequels. While I currently prefer its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn may yet supplant it, as it is the type of movie that demands mulling over, which is already one way it sets itself apart. It is also strikingly small-scale. Your typical action spectacular is about saving the entire world, while Dawn takes place entirely in and around what remains of San Francisco, even though the whole planet has been decimated by the virus that began spreading at the end of Rise. That tight focus is simply smart storytelling: the audience can keep track of one emblematic storyline and see how it fits into the larger context.
But what is most striking about how Dawn of the Planet of the Apes independently-minded m.o. is its thoughtfulness, and this is especially striking considering how singularly action-oriented it also is. This is essentially a war movie: when a group of humans who are genetically immune to the virus stumble upon the ape community in the Muir Woods, it leads to a series of conflicts that culminates in an apes-vs.-humans battle for the city. So obviously there is plenty of action (including several lovingly shot sequences of apes riding horseback), but it is complemented with lots of scenes of talking. Most of this verbal communication involves the apes, providing a mix of sign language, grunts and screams, and some basic spoken English. The lines that make up the dialogue are not particularly extraordinary, but the fact that so much screen time is spent on what is essentially the development of a new form of communication is extraordinary.
This ape communication is a key component to how Dawn truly excels. In portraying the evolution of apes adapting human abilities, this movie essentially presents a species unlike any other that we have seen before. The original Planet of the Apes just had people in ape costumes, which was fine, but what was started in Rise and now fully realized in Dawn goes beyond just people with ape characteristics or apes with people characteristics. Andy Serkis, reprising his role here as ape leader Caesar, has been rightly praised as the trailblazer of motion capture acting, but this technology is now strong enough that every ape performer is on his level: among others, there is Toby Kebbell going wild as the rebellious Koba, Karin Konoval supplying peaceful energy as Caesar’s trusted orangutan advisor Maurice, and Judy Greer providing plenty of pathos as Caesar’s wife Cornelia.
The combination here of CGI, practical effects, and the presence of actual individuals produces something that is unknown but familiar. Too many current action blockbusters rely on CGI to fill everything in and come off as painfully fake. Dawn goes for a more practical approach but recognizes that the CGI can be corralled to achieve the mark of a successful movie: real connection.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes movie review rating: B+
Jeff Malone is a voracious entertainment consumer and entertainment creator. He currently resides in New York City, where he is working on a Master’s in Media Studies at The New School. In addition to his pieces on TMRzoo.com, you can check out his blog (jmunney.wordpress.com), where he provides regular coverage of Community and Saturday Night Live, as well as other television, film, music, and the rest of pop culture.