If recent film-making is any indication, the apocalypse will be documented in spliced news footage. Such is the case with the opening credits of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to the James Franco-helmed 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes. As with the previous film, this update to the beloved sci-fi series is grittier and more complex. Director Matthew Reeves continues this franchise’s successful trajectory, creating an entertaining film that also resonates with the themes of survival, cruelty, humanity and what it means to be a leader.
Ten years have passed since the so-called ‘Simian Flu’, a global pandemic created by scientists, decimated most of the world’s population. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the intelligent chimp Franco fostered in the first film, is now a fearsome yet just leader and provider. He and some of the survivors from his time in captivity have formed an ape civilization which they perceive as beyond the barbarous nature of mankind. Caesar’s faith in the superiority of apes, coupled with his belief that even humanity has redeeming qualities, grounds much of the film’s central conflict.
On the human side, a clutch of survivors has gathered in the forested ruins of San Francisco, helmed by fanatical anti-apeist Dreyfus (Gary Oldman in a role too shallow for his talent). While attempting to restore power to the ragtag, heavily armed colony, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell) stumble upon the ape fortress. Despite some Gorillas in the Mist scenes of trust establishment on both sides, tensions are high. While Caesar and Malcolm may be compassionate and wise, those around them are not. The film’s conclusion, alluded to in the title, addresses an underlying bleakness and sense of loss, no matter which side is victorious.
Visually, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is striking in a fantastic way. Reeves wisely plays with the juxtaposition of the apes’ natural movements against the trappings of humanity. Apes on horseback and apes firing machine guns may sound silly, but the execution is thrilling, containing just enough spectacle to elevate the battle scenes without overwhelming, or worse, boring the audience.
The film is lacking in memorable performances or even noteworthy characters. In a movie with good actors like Russell and Oldman, only one good performance exists. Fortunately, it is so good it makes all others irrelevant. In the future, whether or not the apocalypse comes, books should be written on the brilliance of Andy Serkis. (Did your inner geek freak out when you heard he was in the new Star Wars? Mine did a little jig.) His specialty of soulful monsters (Kong and Gollum) finds a particular resonance in Caesar, perhaps the most heroic of his creations. Whenever rebooting a franchise, there must exist some key element that makes it worth the effort. Serkis remains the driving force that could easily continue into future installments.