Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a surprise hit towards the end of 2011's summer blockbuster season, with terrific special effects and compelling plotting which married character development and dramatic irony with awesome action and that bit where a gorilla fought a helicopter. Just as that film borrowed from the fourth original film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, so Dawn of the Planet of the Apes borrows from the fifth film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
Ten winters on from the events of Rise, Caesar and his fellow apes have used their augmented intelligence to build a peaceful society in the forests of San Francisco. Mankind has become all but extinct after the chemical compound from the previous film turned out to be lethal to humans, so the apes are surprised and mistrustful when a group of human interlopers appear to threaten their stability. The humans, led by army veteran Dreyfus, are just as wary, having dubbed the pandemic "simian flu". Luckily, Caesar and a human named Malcolm are more pragmatic and together they try and foster a peaceful co-existence between the surviving humans and the thriving apes.
With the courage of Rupert Wyatt's convictions in the hugely acclaimed Rise, director Matt Reeves takes to Dawn in an unusual fashion for a big studio movie- with a 15 minute subtitled sequence of ape sign language that establishes what's changed for Caesar and co since we last saw them. Andy Serkis is top-billed as the lead chimp this time too, which signifies, together with the opening sequence, that this one is about the apes as much as (if not more than) the human characters.
The humans are trying to restart a hydroelectric dam in ape territory so that they can have access to some limited power and once Caesar permits them to do so, the rollercoaster is set in motion. The film is full of moments of either tranquillity or mutual understanding which are suddenly shattered, whether accidentally or deliberately, by a character's actions. If any of these moments lasted a little longer, Caesar and Malcolm might just get that peace for which they're both striving. But yeah, there's that title.
Make no mistake- the story, by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, is still structurally air-tight, but the way in which the script, (co-written with Mark Bomback) passes off this escalation as a believably random and chaotic series of events is a big part of what makes this such a gripping sequel. Even though the apes are the only returning characters from the previous film, (including my personal favourite, Maurice the orangutan) the new human characters are just as crucial to the direction of the narrative. Having said that, it wouldn't be unfair to say that they're also a little underpowered compared to the apes.
The disfigured Koba is briefly glimpsed at the end of Rise, being freed from the Gen-Sys labs during Caesar's insurrection. Played here by Toby Kebbell, the intervening years have turned him into a portmanteau of Shane from The Walking Dead and Heath Ledger's Joker, all embodied in one terrifying chunk of monkey. Kebbell comes damn close to upstaging Serkis here, but both of the performance-capture turns are superb, with Caesar's wisdom making a solid counterpoint to Koba's manipulative ways and psychopathic anger. Both have brute strength on their side and the tension between them comes to blows, but it's telling that the most electric scenes in the movie are the ones in which they get all political with each other.
Even so, it couldn't be said that either Koba or Dreyfus are baddies. Sure, they're antagonists by default, but the whole set-up is rich in conflict, even between characters who might well be allies in other circumstances than their current predicament. Without the corporate masters of the previous instalment, Reeves has made a film in which the stakes are altogether more complex and delicately balanced. That's not to say he doesn't relish the opportunity to put an ape on horseback, dual-wielding machine guns in the midst of a chaotic skirmish in the second act, but then this series of reboots is terrific for iconic moments like that, as an emotional return to an iconic location from Rise also attests.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is now showing, in 2D and 3D, at cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, why not share your comments below? Title suggestions for part three are welcome too- I vote The Noses on the Faces of the Ladies of the Planet of the Apes.
I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.