It’s always been strange how endearingly popular the Planet of the Apes series has been over the years. Like all the most impressive art it’s difficult to see where the absurdity ends and the genius begins. The notion that apes would gain such hyper intelligence in the near future leading them to rule over humans was as ridiculous in the sixties as it is today. Did anybody ever take that story at face value or was it always seen as it was intended, as an allegory for, then relevant, social issues? After all, that’s what science-fiction has always been: a veil with which to present ideas that pertain to contemporary circumstance. If the 2011 reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes used a message about how we treat and react to animals as a vehicle to portray how apes could become smart enough to revolt, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes uses the idea of a society evolving and imploding to show how terrifying that revolution would be.
Ten years following the outbreak of the Simian Virus (which began at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes), human civilization has collapsed. The few humans immune to the outbreak have spent a decade scrabbling and fighting amongst themselves over scarce resources. Meanwhile Caesar (Andy Serkis), the ape that sparked the primate insurgency, has built a home for his species in the wilderness free of human contact. But as a local tribe of men attempt to renovate a dam to generate power in the ape’s forest, the two cultures come to a head for the first time in a generation.
Having been established in Rise, Serkis’s Caesar and his brethren are given an opportunity to expand and diversify beyond the limited scope of a newly incentivised militia. Caesar comes into his own as a leader, one of the few apes capable of vocal language but often remaining quiet, cautious, choosing words and actions with care. It’s a testament to Serkis’s careful and nuanced performance that Caesar is not only captivating to watch in his restraint but one of the most engaging screen leaders in recent memory. Although mostly limited to sign language, the rest of the ape-cast keep up with Serkis ably – much to the strength of the narrative – as the majority of the characterization and plotting is rested squarely on the apes’ shoulders.
For a story about conflict between simians and humans, Dawn is densely layered. There are no easy to categorise villains, even among the antagonists. Every character is given ample reason to act according to their biases and in the moment it is often difficult to blame any of them for their actions; it all feels so very justified. Both sides have schemers and soldiers, zealots and agitators. Both species have fathers who can stand side by side and admire youth. Both sides want peace, even if it must be prefaced by war.
Although clocking in at just shy of two hours, director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) handles plotting with a deft touch that keeps the story in constant motion, approaching action and set pieces with a patience that builds tension and dread. This patience also gives Dawn a chance to exploit the scale of violence on display, handily avoiding gratuity or detail, but capturing the carnage that a destructive civilization or two can leave in their wake. In fact if there is any single complaint to be leveled against Dawn of the Planet of the Apes it is that it is so taut and tight, so filled with interesting and well thought out ideas that it’s a shame there weren’t just a little more. Dawn always feels a single step short of being a truly epic adventure, just that extra mile away from being so grand in scope that it will stand out as defining the Apes series for this age. Even if it doesn’t reach such a height, though, it is still one of the smartest, most impressive and exciting science fiction adventures in years.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens in wide release across the UK on Thursday 18th July, 2014. Image Rights; 20th Century Fox
Taking a strong first chapter and building on the gravitas of Serkis’s Caesar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes easily surpasses its predecessor and stands out as the best blockbuster of the year so far.