Film reviews and more since 2009

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) review

Dir. Matt Reeves

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★½

I spent the first ten minutes of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and, guiltily, ten minutes before I even sat down to watch it, debating with myself the logic of starting a new franchise with the word “Rise” only to follow it up with a film with the word “Dawn.” I worked my way into a “chicken and egg” quandary, admittedly having to stop and remind myself weeks before I geared up to watch both of these movies which came first chronologically, despite still being confused at which would come first realistically. I conclude that, while questionable, it does make sense from a revolution stand-point, a common theme of this new batch of Apes movies. One must “rise” and self/group-motivate in order to start a “dawn,” or a new day, of social order.

Having moved on from that linguistical anomaly, I was pleased to find that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes really does stay committed to the groundwork laid by Rise of the Planet of the Apes in that it borrows ideas from the later sequels of the original series (this one borrows from Battle of the Planet of the Apes, the final film) but isn’t afraid to give new ideas a try either. It’s a film comfortably faceted in taking, but not settling on, inspiration as the fuel to kickstart a new generation of ape shenanigans for a new generation that craves higher budgets, bombastic climaxes, better special effects, and enhanced spectacle.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gives fans what they want and gives the modern action junkie what they crave, but for the rest of us, who appreciated the direction and grace of RiseDawn unfortunately squanders a bit of its potential by discarding any kind of character development, solidifying this series’ new common problem. The five original Apes movies, even the well-loved original, all had their own flaws, but the main issue came in the form of convoluted narratives or unrealized themes. Just like James Franco’s underwritten Will and Freida Pinto’s utterly useless Caroline characters from its predecessor, Dawn‘s characters might as well be faceless chess-pieces by the time the loud battle occurs at the conclusion of the film, exposing our lack of knowledge on the characters by showing us how empty we feel when they succumb to their inevitable fates.

The humans in the film are played by Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, and the teenage Kodi Smit-McPhee, who stumble upon a colony of ape revolutionaries deep in the California woods following the outbreak of the deadly Simian Flu. Worldwide, population has plummeted, hospitals are overcrowded, and even quarantines can’t contain the virus that was initially tested by Will Rodman in effort to curb the neurological effects of Alzheimer’s on the elderly.

With humans facing extinction, apes have become the powerhouse in the world, or at least this little subsector. Led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), who left the care of Will and Caroline, who now has a son named Blue Eyes, the apes are faced with a new dilemma when this gaggle of humans stumble into their territory armed and in search of food. Through the compassion and care he experienced from his human caretakers, Caesar is more welcoming to the humans as opposed to Koba, a fellow ape with a deep-seated hatred and distrust for humans following genetic and drug experimentation. Koba believes the humans should be exiled or, better yet, killed, but both leaders come to a pact with one another and the masses to allow the humans access to their own segregated territory.

The humans, particularly Malcolm (Clarke) and Dreyfus (Oldman), hatch a plan to pursue a dam that they believe could harbor hydroelectricity in order to restore power to their local community. This requires an awful lot of time to plan – time they do not have as Koba gets more fickle with his support of Caesar’s non-violent approach to dealing with the humans by the moment.

Since the human characters are such faceless creatures, it propels Caesar and Koba to be the most interesting souls on-screen, moving with total dimension and impeccable artistry with Serkis and Toby Kebbell, respectively, acting as the source of their movements through the same motion-capture process as was used in Rise. Serkis gave such great life to Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films that his presence and emoting eyes as Caesar have only grown more natural with time. Unlike the ugliness and unstill movements the animation produced in a film like Mars Needs Moms (which came out the same year as Rise), the motions present in Dawn are fluid, attractive, and refined.

Had the spectacle and pacing of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes been of that rare, sublime quality, then the human characters bearing the personalities of squirrels wouldn’t have been such a deterrent. But Dawn‘s pacing is merely adequate, and by the last forty minutes, all is discarded for a very climactic finale that showcases the powerhouse effects (in some people’s minds, what they “paid for”). Nothing is downright ugly or offensive, but it’s unfortunate to see the characters and themes clubbed into submission once again by the oppressive nature of special effects.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes works best in moments, as there are several glimmers of comic relief or effective drama that elevate the film as a whole. The moment where Koba initially taunts a few Joes drinking whiskey is uproariously funny, as is the moment when the first sound upon electricity being briefly restored is the radio playing The Band’s song “The Weight (Take a Load Off, Annie).” These moments keep Dawn interesting and punctuate it with a notion that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. Even as the screen is swarmed with screeching apes and evidence of where the $200 million budget was spent, it never feels overbearing, which is a testament to the grace the new franchise employs with every installment.

This is an occasionally fun and frequently attractive film. It tags all the basis in giving those that want a Planet of the Apes franchise to do more than survive in the 2010s. But the give-and-take relationship with the entirety of this series has been a bit ridiculous. Where the older films gave us themes and characters, albeit in an ordinarily flawed and unusual manner, the newer films give us the spectacle and entertainment we’ve come to expect while forgoing the necessity of human interest. We have yet to have one really good Planet of the Apes film and that’s more bothersome, I feel, than four questionably necessary sequels.

NOTE: As of this writing, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is available to stream on Hulu.

My review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes
My review of War for the Planet of the Apes

My review of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Starring: Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Directed by: Matt Reeves.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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