In 2011, Fox unleashed “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” a big screen reboot of their beloved “Planet of the Apes” franchise that was notable in the fact that the apes, usually portrayed, up until this point, by actors in sophisticated rubber suits, would be replaced by completely computer generated creatures. (They used a process called performance capture, which helped animators get a better sense of the characters by transforming actors’ movements into track-able data.)
That film turned out to be a surprise smash, both critically and commercially, although this could have been because the bar was set so astoundingly low by Tim Burton’s clunky 2002 remake. And we all know that where there’s a hit, there will certainly be a sequel, especially if it’s one of Fox’s crown jewel properties.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” set 10 years after the events of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” on an Earth where the human population has dwindled thanks to a virus unleashed in the first film, is that sequel. It focuses on a tenuous truce between a band of super intelligent apes, led again by Caesar (Andy Serkis) and a small cluster of human survivors (Jason Clarke, Keri Russell), who are desperate to channel power to a dilapidated San Francisco.
But does it live up to the lofty heights of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”? Or are we back in Tim Burton territory, rehashing old memories with willful abandon? Read on to find out!
1. This Is the Summer Movie You’ve Been Waiting For
While up until this point, “Edge of Tomorrow,” the Tom Cruise time loop extravaganza, was probably my favorite summer movie (in summer movie terms), “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” easily rises above that film. Not like any of you saw “Edge of Tomorrow,” of course, but still. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” really is the summer movie you’ve been waiting for. And for a summer movie season whose profits have noticeably plummeted, it’s a very good thing to have a big, loud blockbuster that’s actually worth showing up to the theater for (and plunking down $12 for popcorn). We cannot recommend it enough.
2. Andy Serkis Is Phenomenal
It was Andy Serkis’s performance in the original film that helped make it special; the filmmakers seemed to have agreed, because this film is firmly in the simian hands of Caesar. We get to see him as the leader of a primitive ape society, and grown into a militarized commander towards the end of the film. We also get glimpses of who Caesar is — as a friend, as a husband, as a father. And the entire thing is heartbreaking and brilliant. While Serkis, who has been criticized largely for referring to the animators’ work as “digital make-up” (and rightfully so; he’d be nothing without them), should place more emphasis on the technicians and artists responsible for bringing his motion captured performance to life, his contributions are, once again, invaluable.
3. It Demands to Be Seen in IMAX 3D
Now, I’m more or less indifferent to 3D and have stronger feelings about IMAX, just because I love the movie to be that big and that loud. But “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” demands to be seen in 3D and in a large format theater. Absolutely demands it. First off, the thing was shot in 3D. So it’s an actual native 3D presentation. And you can tell — it looks gorgeous. But more than that, director Matt Reeves plays around with focus and depth in a way that is just outstanding and, more than that, really, really cool. Plus the sound design is super amazing and creepy (this is probably the scariest “Planet of the Apes” movie since the 1968 original). Believe you me, it’s worth the extra change.
4. Occasionally, It’s Artsy And Weird — in The Best Possible Way
The first 20-30 minutes of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” are virtually wordless. This is when you meet Caesar’s family, and the apes are basically communicating via sign language for the entire time. It’s awesome. And this has to be attributed to director Matt Reeves, who finally makes his way from smaller genre pictures like “Let Me In” and “Cloverfield” to the leagues of big-budget studio filmmaking. What’s sort of miraculous is that he hasn’t lost his voice — there are a number of identifiably Matt Reeves flourishes that are on the screen, and the entire thing feels like the work of an artist and not a committee (behind a long, lacquered conference table). If you thought some of those long takes in “Let Me In” were impressive… Just you wait. Reeves knocks it out of the park.
5. There Are Nods to the Earlier Movies
As a “Planet of the Apes” super fan, it was easy to spot the references to earlier films, including, but not limited to, the “Apes shall not kill apes” mantra from “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” and the bus attack from “Battle of the Planet of the Apes” (of all things). There are also references to Jerry Goldsmith’s original groundbreaking score in the music by Michael Giacchino (more on that in a minute). The best part about these easter eggs is that they are never too jokey or in your face (something that the references in the first film bordered on) — just know that if you’re a fan, you’ll get them.
6. The Humans Are Kind of Iffy
As amazingly well rounded and three-dimensional (literally) the ape characters are, the human characters aren’t afforded the same consideration. Jason Clarke is just kind of a drab dude whose teenage son is having trouble adjusting to the post-apocalyptic lifestyle (hey, aren’t we all?), while Keri Russell also seems to have lost family members and at least some suggestion of what she did before society collapsed. Elsewhere, human characters are just one-note background players. It is nice to report, however, that the Gary Oldman character, seen screaming through every bit of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” promotional materials, is actually a more fully formed villain. That’s a relief at least.
7. Michael Giacchino’s Score Is Dynamite
One of the highlights of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the musical score by Michael Giacchino. It’s absolutely gorgeous — sometimes roughly atonal, sometimes stirring and huge, and other times delicate and formal (like in the wordless prologue, which traces the spread of the virus around the globe). Giacchino is a composer working at the top of his game, and this is one of his all-time best scores.
8. It’s Long But Not Too Long
The earlier films in the “Planet of the Apes” franchise were so much fun to watch (and re-watch) partially because they were so quick, usually around an hour-and-a-half. While this film isn’t that concise, clocking in at just over two hours, it is, at least, more than a half hour shorter than Michael Bay’s overstuffed “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” And three times as exciting.
9. You’ll Probably Cry
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is emotionally nuanced, to the point that we were choked up during almost the entire movie. (It doesn’t hurt that the images captured in the film are so beautiful too — everything is mossy and wet.) So don’t be surprised if you start to cry, especially when Caesar is dealing with his newborn son or his complicated relationship with Clarke’s human. The movie is strange and enchanting and powerfully moving.
10. The Sequel Can’t Come Soon Enough
Seriously, if five minutes after this film ended, the next one began, “Nymphomaniac“-style, I’d have been perfectly happy. Fox has already secured the talents of Reeves and Serkis, and a third chapter will be coming. Hopefully, it will be coming sooner rather than later.
Photo courtesy of FOX