2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was many things, a critical and commercial hit being the most unexpected among them. It was a reboot for a historically successful franchise tasked with repairing the brand damage done by a separate, disastrous-in-all-ways-but-box-office-receipts reboot from 2001. The sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is easier to define based on what it is not. It’s not an immediate continuation of Rise‘s story, or a dedicated prequel to the original films, though it fits into the franchise’s chronology snuggly. It’s not a science fiction story, because the fact that it stars hyper-intelligent apes is beside the point. Most inspiringly, it’s not what you expect a summer blockbuster to be, which is why it’s the best one to come along in a very long time, and one of the year’s best films, full stop.
That’s not to suggest that what the trailers have been selling you is a lie, mind you. Dawn does take place in the aftermath of Rise, with a war between humans and apes breaking out across a now untamed San Francisco. 10 years after the release of a virus that causes simian IQs to skyrocket and human populations to plummet, Earth has become wholly disconnected. Led by the charismatic chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis), Rise’s coalition of primates stumble across a wayward man in the film’s opening act, and are just as stunned to see a living human as anyone today would be to see talking, weapon-wielding monkeys. Once the remnants of man and ape-kind reconnect, trouble for both sides brews instantly. This eventually leads, as advertised, to all-out war, with apes riding horseback, blaring akimbo automatic rifles as hellfire and explosions consume already ruined city streets. It’s quite a sight.
Cloverfield director Matt Reeves takes over for Rise’s Rupert Wyatt, and his experience photographing the aftermath of massive destruction in a playground of skyscrapers is put to effective use here. The apes allow for a verticality of action that you can’t get with just us boring Homo sapiens, and while the film makes a strong first impression with beautiful shots of chimps leaping and clambering across towering Redwood branches, their movements are no less breathtaking when the story takes them to concrete jungles of twisted rebar and rusty chains. The performance capture is key to all this: even with dozens of apes on screen at a given time, you never doubt their physical presence in the scene for a second.
Where it’s more important, though, is in close-up, as the opening 20 minutes setup half the film’s cast with barely a word spoken. Dawn finds Caesar having transitioned from creature without a place in our world, to master of a world of his own creation, and does so using little more than gestures and facial expressions. His relationships with half-a-dozen other primate characters are established with clockwork efficiency, as is our understanding of ape society as a whole. Though his leadership is founded on viewing apes as morally superior to man, Caesar nonetheless provides a missing link to the old world, modeling his culture’s language and laws around our own. When a colony of surviving humans makes their interest in Caesar’s territory violently known, his leadership and idealism are put to the test.
Were this a simpler film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes would have just built on the environmentalism-through-misanthropy message of Rise, wherein the audience gets a kick out of Mother Nature turning the tables on a species that, in the real world, is exploiting her for all she’s worth (see also: Godzilla). But Dawn has evolved right along with its characters: an animation showing global spread of the deadly Simian Flu was used as one final F-you to humanity in Rise, but when a similar sequence introduces the sequel, the weight of humankind’s downfall becomes real. Dawn carries that weight with every moment, such that the franchise can no longer best be described as science fiction: it’s a tragedy, but with apes.
The humans aren’t just greedy executives or snot-nosed punks for the apes to get one over on this time. The scales have been brutally evened by the time Dawn begins. All families are now rag-tag, with lead humans Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell) filling voids in each other’s lives that the outbreak created. While we feel joy at seeing Caesar’s society prosper with so little, the grief of the human characters is felt in every scene. This necessitates some clumsy, exposition-filled dialogue, with the humans often having to work backstory into every conversation they share with one another. They’re thin sketches individually, but what they represent collectively is powerful, allowing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to achieve something very, very few blockbusters are capable of: universal empathy.
Whereas every superhero/transforming robot/action movie inevitably boils down to saving the world, Dawn is a film where the end goal is co-existence within that world between two different groups. It sounds simple, even “hippy-dippy,” as one of the film’s more shortsighted humans says, but Dawn’s pursuit of peace is downright radical as both a message, and a narrative driver. Instances of minor conflict that other films would exploit, Caesar and Dawn resist, again and again. This is a story full of excitement, tension, and dramatic reversals, but they have meaning because the film takes its time to make us care about both sides of the struggle. Gary Oldman’s character has been billed as a villain, but his actions are no less sympathetic or understandable than those of Koba (Tony Kebbell), Caesar’s right-hand bonobo, who’s more entitled to his hatred of humans than anyone.
Some will find the film’s opening hour slow, but the payoff for investing the audience in humans and apes alike is extraordinary. An explosive battle of fire ‘n brimstone that would constitute the finale of another film challenges the viewer to pick a side, and you can’t; like Caesar and Malcolm, all you want is for the fighting to stop, because Dawn has already shown you how much more affecting moments of compassion and co-operation between these characters are than those of conflict between them. While the action is well-directed and invigorating, you won’t remember any of it as easily as those times when Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes you feel like you’re witnessing something you’d thought blockbuster filmmaking had lost: the ability to be as emotionally grand as it is dramatically.
Again, let’s not forget that this is the movie with horse-riding, gun-toting monkeys, and a climax where trigger-rigged bombs play a key role. It’s still just as capable of providing the adrenaline thrills of the summer blockbuster as it is of fumbling a bit with a blockbuster’s third act (the movie’s franchise roots trap the ending somewhat). The difference is that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes earns its spectacle, and not just the kind with explosions and high-flying ape acrobatics. When the characters find a decrepit roadside self-serve shining with power and light, their wonderment at the sight of something long-thought dead roaring back to life provides a mirror for what it’s like to watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes at its best.