Audaciously for a summer blockbuster, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes spends much of its running time with apes who interact through sign language, with the occasional bit of dramatic (shock! horror!) speech from the main ape leader. A lesser film might not have managed to pull these potentially cheesy moments off, but they are actually the best part of a work which struggles with a predictable plot and cookie-cutter human characters.
The first Planet of the Apes film of this new trilogy established a world of chimps made super intelligent from exposure to what was intended to be a viral cure for Alzheimer’s, which also turned out to be deadly to humans. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins with an effective graphics sequence which fills us in on how the virus has spread through the world to create a post-apocalyptic situation. And then it cuts to the apes.
The ape leader is Caesar, the original patient zero for the virus, who has established an ape commune out in the forests surrounding San Francisco. Everything’s fine, until a small group of human survivors (survivors, because they are immune to the virus) accidentally stumble into the place. Tensions are raised and it looks like the humans and apes are going to go to war.
Our main human characters are Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who leads the small group and forms a bond with Caesar, his son Alexander (Kodi Smit McPhee, The Road) – who basically says nothing and sketches occasionally – and Ellie (Keri Russell) a former nurse who gets all weepy and motherly at the sight of a baby chimp. There’s also a quick to anger guy who basically feels violence is the way forward and a black guy who says ‘ass’ and ‘yo’.
They’re all archetypes; their characterisation ranges from bland to non-existent (we know nothing of their past) and there doesn’t even seem to be much chemistry in the present. We only know Alexander is Malcolm’s son because we are told, and that Malcolm and Ellie are together because they kiss. Gary Oldman does his best as the leader of all the survivors, but it’s just not a very interesting part.
Luckily the apes are emotionally engaging, exquisitely detailed and barely recognisable as CGI. They’re as rounded as characters which barely speak can be, and my sympathies were with them throughout. The problem is that the first film managed to balance things to make both humans and apes interesting and rounded, meaning as a sequel, Dawn slightly disappoints.
Like the first film, however, action doesn’t really occur till the end, which is admirable; not many blockbusters choose slowly simmering tension over the less subtle approach. When the inevitable confrontation does occur, it is impressively staged and zips along.
Overall, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a solid and satisfying post-apocalyptic slowly-brewing tale of the tensions between ape and man, but with more rounded human characters, it could have been even better.