Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a sequel that, although the original is great, improves on it in every single way. Matt Reeves, who did the awesome Cloverfield and incredible American version of Let the Right One In (Let Me In) directs this installment, and you can tell he absolutely loves the source material. While this movie could have taken the easy way out and been focused mostly on humans, the apes actually get most of the screen time, and Dawn is better for it. The apes are probably the most stunningly realistic and human CG characters ever put on film. The last time I felt so convinced by digital creations like this was probably Jurassic Park or Lord of the Rings. Yet, although it’s a huge leap forward for Mo-cap and visual effects technology, Dawn is one of the most emotional and gripping movies I’ve seen all year.
The movie opens about 10 years after the end of ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ (I love this series, but god these names are a bit long). Humanity has been seemingly wiped out for the most part from the Simian Flu, brought about in Rise by the ‘cure’ for Alzheimer’s made by James Franco’s character. Dawn opens on the Ape’s society, led by Caesar, who now has a family and an entire population of apes who look to him for leadership. The opening 15 minutes of Dawn are really beautiful, as we see how all of the apes live now. Hunting together, learning to read and write, all with no dialogue, as they only communicate with sign language (at least at first). They haven’t seen a human in years; that is, until they run into one in the forest, and in a rash burst of violence, the two societies clash and the tension begins. I won’t go into much more plot detail, as it just came out and there are plenty of twists that caught me totally off guard. However, it’s safe to say that the tension between the cultures of man and Caesar’s apes rises, until it hits a climax and all hell breaks loose.
Just like with ‘Rise’, Caesar is yet again my favorite character. The first time around however, we relate to him because he’s slowly learning what it is to be ‘human’ so to speak. When him and his apes escape the sanctuary, it’s a huge dramatic moment, because we relate to him on a human level. None of us would want to be treated like those apes were, and what made it great is that their success in escaping ultimately dooms humanity. In ‘Dawn’, Caesar has larger problems on his hands, as he’s faced with keeping the peace between his tribe and the humans. He doesn’t want war, just like the humans don’t, but their lack of understanding and fear of the others societies is what inevitably drives their conflict to violence.
When I first heard that Matt Reeves was taking over the directors chair from the original’s Rupert Wyatt, I knew it was in good hands. If you haven’t seen ‘Let Me In’, I highly recommend it. I would even say it’s better than the universally acclaimed Swedish version. Matt Reeves clearly understands that the heart of the drama for ‘Dawn’ is with the two faction leaders, Caesar and Malcolm (played by the great Jason Clarke) and their attempts to find peace with one another. His signature directorial style shines through more than a few times, with one long shot during the apes first raid standing out in particular. I’m really glad so much of this movie (I believe all of it) was shot on location, and on real sets. The world feels really worn and beaten, just like the remaining humans that inhabit it.
‘Dawn’ just proves that this franchise, although a reboot itself, demands to be taken seriously. With heartfelt emotion and drama to match its incredible leaps forward in VFX technology, I can’t wait to see what they do next with the Apes franchise.