Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens with a beautifully understated visual storytelling sequence which tracks the first film’s simian flu as it gradually consumes the world over a period of ten years. Within a couple of minutes we are aware of the entire situation, the premise and just how devastating the disease was to the human race (wiping out all but a select immune few). We then cut to that close up of Caesar that has been used so prevalently in the film’s marketing material, and the film is elevated further.
The CGI/Mo-Cap technology has, much like the apes, evolved substantially and this opening shot of our lead ape in war make-up is testament to the ridiculous levels of realism now being achieved by effects houses such as WETA.
We spend the next few scenes getting to know the now thriving ape colony. Living in the San Francisco hills and largely uninterrupted by humans the group has become a settled civilisation. They have built houses, learnt a shared sign language and created a set of rules governed by the elders which most importantly relies on the mantra “ape shall not kill ape”.
These early scenes take place during a hunting trip as Caesar, his son Blue Eyes and his right hand man Koba (easily recognisable from the first film for his mangled and scarred face) track some deer to make their dinner. This sequence, much like the opening is brilliantly conceived and executed as Blue Eyes moves without thinking, attracting a nearby bear which almost kills Caesar, but is thwarted by the ever angry, ever violent Koba. This simple act sets up the main ape players. Caesar wants to be the wise father figure, Blue Eyes is the impetuous young-ling still learning about his place in the world and Koba is the loose cannon; untrusting of any race but ape and unflinching when it comes to raising a weapon.
At this point the excitement for a fantastic sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes was reaching fever pitch. But then the humans are introduced and along with it comes bland, expositionary dialogue that for some reason feels the need to tell us “it’s been ten years since those apes killed us humans”…”But it wasn’t their fault it was scientists who created the virus, the apes didn’t have a choice”….”Don’t give me that hippy dippy bullshit”. And just like that we are told (if it wasn’t already clear) that the humans are idiots. Save for one. One nice man (Malcolm) who is the mirror image of Caesar in his want for peace, but is not Caesar’s equal in leading his people and therefore he is a sap that just mopes around wishing for peace when he can’t actually ever enforce it.
Inevitably the humans and apes meet, and it looks like there will be a chance for some sort of mutual ceasefire. Until randomly one of the humans shoots an ape. Now the tempers are frayed, but the humans need to get into the apes’ land to make use of a defunct dam which can provide power to the human sanctuary. So our lead human, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) goes to the apes unarmed and vulnerable to plead for peace. The ever diplomatic Caesar allows them one more chance which Malcolm is happy for. Yet for some reason he brings the trigger happy human with him on his trip to the dam who had already shot an ape a few scenes ago. What a plan!….You can see where this is going can’t you?
For the rest of the film we are forced into deliberately grey areas of politics and emotion when it comes to war and the need for survival. The point is that in war nobody is ever in the right; the warmongers are just trying to defend what they love, the peacemakers are trying to prevent their people coming to harm and through it all there are nothing but losses on both sides. But it all feels a little ham-fisted and repetitive. There is betrayal, apes forgetting their ape code, humans loading guns, firing guns, reloading guns and somehow falling for a vaudeville comedy routine from the most evil looking ape pretending to be cute to try and infiltrate their weapons store (you can guess how that ends).
And whilst I’m not going to spoil anything, even the final showdown, which could have been a great climactic moment of over boiling tension and confrontation, instead falls victim to a huge scale CGI smash-fest that ends with a cliche.
I was hoping for huge things from DOTPOTA, particularly given just how powerful the first film was. But where Rise gave us a purely character based story, supported by humans (James Franco and John Lithgow) who can truly lead a film, Dawn fumbles the ball by falling into the trap of adding more action and having a core group of humans, none of whom seem able to carry a film either on their own as part of a group. Even Gary Oldman, in a smaller-than-usual role as the human reflection of Koba, seems kind of bored by what’s going on. It’s a real shame.
Before I finish I have to heap some praise on British actor Toby Kebbel. He plays the most interesting ape, Koba, with a terrifying intensity and a voice that seems to choke itself out in disdain at the poor treatment he and his family have suffered. Kebbel has come such a long way since his breakout role in Dead Man’s Shoes (which he was also fantastic in), and Dawn proves he is an equal to Andy Serkis in the Mo-Cap suit, whilst also being an acting power-house in general; up there with the best of them. Definitely one to continually watch.
Whilst I wouldn’t say avoid the film – it’s definitely worth a watch if only for the incredible achievement of bringing the apes to life – don’t go in with the hope of being blown away like you probably were with Rise. That’s not going to happen. In a word: Dis-ape-pointed…