The dominant attitude that seems to prevail when making sequels is to give people more of the same. If it functioned well enough the first time to justify a second helping, something had to be working, right?
Matt Reeves’ “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” on the other hand, completely defies the logic. While Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 series reboot “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” focused on scientific ethics and human progress, its follow-up goes in a completely different direction. If it weren’t for the astonishing motion-capture apes, the casual onlooker might not even be able to pair the films in the same series.
I must applaud Fox, the studio willing to front the $170 million budget, for allowing a new director to take one of their most vital franchises into uncharted territory. Reeves uses no marquee names (unless you count Gary Oldman), focuses mainly on the apes, and never caves to a large-scale battle that could level an entire urban area. That was likely not an immediately confidence-inspiring vision, especially given the tepid commercial reception to Reeves’ 2010 arty horror film “Let Me In.”
But “Dawn” works so well because it does not feel tethered to anyone’s agenda other than that of its creative team. The film has the ability to explore what the series can be as opposed to how much it can stretch what it already is. Reeves makes some exciting discoveries with this freedom that further energize what was already a fascinating franchise. He leaves us excited for whatever sequel may follow, despite leaving no obvious indications of what the next film might entail.
Like all great thoughtful films, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is not really about what’s happening on screen. That’s not to say the film’s action isn’t interesting; quite the contrary is true. 10 years after the events of “Rise” resulted in apocalyptic disease wiping out nearly all of the human population, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the apes now live self-sufficiently in the forest outside San Francisco. They assume all of humanity is dead … and then get a rude awakening when Malcolm and Ellie (Jason Clarke and Keri Russell) lead a group into their midst attempting to resuscitate a hydroelectric dam.
These renewed interspecies interactions provide the tension that powers the film, producing some insights on the very nature of politics and diplomacy. The ape-human relations could easily stand in for Israel and Palestine, two perpetually warring factions locked in a quest for dominance in a seemingly endless war of attrition. In such a climate, hate and cynicism easy; faith, trust, and forgiveness are precarious – if even possible.
As Caesar and Malcolm form a tentative rapport, each faces challenges from more bellicose warmongers in their own camp. Koba, a former subject of human drug testing, mirrors Hitler’s rise to power by preying on hatred of the feared “other.” (The film even offers an event that drew parallels to the Reichstag fire in my mind.) And among the humans, Dreyfus (Oldman) is willing to annihilate the apes if it means the survival of the humans.
While “Dawn” offers plenty of riveting action scenes and tense dramatic scenarios, it’s most notable for an understated investigation into the very nature of power and what it reveals about our innermost nature. The technology is still impressive, but Reeves hardly spends any time indulging our desire to gawk at it. And, in a way, perhaps that’s what motion-capture needs to focus on in order to move forwards: the vast interior life that can be seen through the most elaborate exteriors. B+ /