Rise of the Planet of the Apes, one of the most pleasant surprises in years for me in big-budget theatrical releases. Which naturally leads up to 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, currently raking in piles of money and critical acclaim.
It has been 10 years since a virus has torn the world apart, wiping out a majority of mankind across the planet. Little pockets of humanity have managed to survive, working together to do so. But north of San Francisco, the intelligent, genetically-evolved ape, Caesar (Andy Serkis), is leading a community of apes that has moved on with no interference from humanity. It's been so long since the apes have even seen a human they begin to wonder if any have even survived. That wonder is answered when a small group of humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), walks into the woods in hopes of reaching a nearby dam, a dam that if restarted up could power the life of their colony of survivors waiting in fortified San Francisco. Caesar must now decide what to do. Allow the humans to repair the broken-down dam and refuel their colony? Don't allow them to pass and risk a violent response from the humans who have become increasingly desperate? The ape community hangs in the balance.
Revisiting 'Rise' before jumping into 'Dawn' this weekend, I came away impressed again with where the series/franchise has gone. I can't say enough how surprised I was, how genuinely good 'Rise' was. Naturally, I was psyched for the sequel, to see what was done with the follow-up (Yes, I support sequels as it suits me). Director Matt Reeves takes the helm and does it well. It isn't necessarily what you'd expect from a summer blockbuster. It isn't mindless, stupid action on a grand scale. Yeah, it has action, but the focus and grand scale is more interested in the story and the characters, developing it all so the action actually means something. It's not just random explosions. The action and the story work together seamlessly. This isn't a mindless blockbuster. This is a good movie, and it is most definitely the better for it. 'Dawn' takes the baton and keeps on running, a worthy sequel, one that lays things out nicely for another sequel should they so choose.
What helps set this sequel apart from most inferior sequels is that rehashed idea from the original series that started way back in 1968 with The Planet of the Apes. 'Dawn' creates a story in a new world, a world that has gone most of 10 years without much in the way of human involvement. The roads have been claimed back by nature. The towns -- we see San Francisco as the main human backdrop -- are falling apart, nature, plants, weeds and greenery growing as far as the eye can see. Amongst this world without too much human interference, the Earth is getting back to the basics. In this world, little communities have popped up, including Caesar's ape village up in the Muir Woods National Monument, and the Colony in San Francisco, human survivors banding together. It seems simple to commend a movie for creating a world -- that's what they're supposed to do -- but 'Dawn' works. We're thrust into a dark, gloomy, dreary world where survival comes above all else. Simple as that.
Picking up right where he left off, Andy Serkis again steals the show as Caesar, the highly intelligent ape leader who has even learned to speak (the other apes coming along nicely in that department). At no point watching the apes do you ever really consider you're watching computer-generated images. It just looks real. It looks natural. The visual is key because if it didn't work, you're taken completely out of the movie and that can be impossible to recover from. Beyond the visual though, the best part of the movie is the development of the Caesar character. The revolution of the 1st movie is gone so the apes settle into a new life, Caesar as their leader. We see him struggling with decisions, struggling with leadership, struggling with what to do. He's now got a family to consider too, his wife, Cornelia (Judy Greer), and his son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). The performance is the heart of the movie, Serkis carrying the movie from beginning to end.
So go figure, but there is far more interest here in the apes story than the humans. That's not to say the humans aren't interesting, just not as interesting as the apes. Along with Caesar and his family, we also see Koba (Toby Kebbell), Caesar's fiery friend, a rescue from a science lab, Maurice (Karin Konoval), an already intelligent former circus ape and Caesar's closest friend, and Rocket (Terry Notary), another friend from the ape habitat. As for the humans and along with Clarke, look for Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the leader of the San Francisco colony, Ellie (Keri Russell), Malcolm's girlfriend, a doctor, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Malcolm's son, with Kirk Acevedo, Jon Eyez, and Enrique Murciano as assorted other humans we meet.
The coolest dynamic that develops in 'Dawn' is between Caesar and Malcolm. They're both working to accomplish something, both working against incredibly tough odds to get that done. Their scenes together are pretty perfect, both men/fathers realizing how tough their situations are. They don't complain or pout, instead continuing to chip away and work at getting where they need to be. The ape-human dynamic there gives a different dimension to the already interesting story. And yes, the finale packs in the action, a violent night battle in the abandoned streets of San Francisco. It's got a lot going for it, drama, action, some surprising laughs, a little bit of everything. There's also some nice touches for series fans, including the soundtrack using quick samples of composer Jerry Goldsmith's score from the original 'Planet.'
A more than worthy sequel, one that hopefully propels the series forward into another entry!
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014): ***/****