I don’t know what happened. In May and early June things were different. I miss those happy Edge of Tomorrow/Days of Future Past days where we were all on the same wavelength. Oh well. Here we are in July, with a film that many are calling the absolute best film of the summer, and I, much to the dismay of a few very enthusiastic friends think that it is merely ok. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes certainly is a highly ambitious film with some absolutely amazing advancements and moments, but as a story, it falls short in many key areas.
We pick up ten years after ‘Rise’. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his comrades have formed a growing society of mostly articulate apes in the wake of the simian flu whipping out most of the human race. In fact, they haven’t even seen a human in two years, but all that changes when a group of survivors led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) stumbles into their territory. They’re looking for a dam that will hopefully restore power to their village, and while Caesar initially wants absolutely nothing to do with them, he ultimately allows them to get to work under his supervision. This decision rattles the unstable Koba (Toby Kebbell) to the core, so much so that he decides to break away from Caesar altogether, and go to war with him, and the remaining pocket of humans living in the nearby remains of San Fransisco.
The element of this movie that completely delivers is the apes themselves. Motion capture technology has come so very far in recent years, and this is by far the strongest showcase for it to date. Gone are the days in the uncanny valley where the odd faces and not fully rendered fur pulled you out of the story, these look like real apes. The movie does a great job of immersing you in their culture, particularly in an absolutely riveting first fifteen minutes that focuses completely on how the ape culture operates. We see how they hunt, educate, and interact. This not only immerses us into what this society is, but who these apes are as individuals. These actors all give such physically committed, and emotionally layered performances. Andy Serkis infuses Caesar with all of the tragic flaws and innate virtues of a true hero and leader. He’s passionate and dominant, but also able to see good in people he thought to be his adversaries. Every single emotional change is so subtle, and even though his dialogue is very primitive, Serkis makes every word sing.
Almost surpassing Serkis is Toby Kebbell as Koba. He takes a character hardly worth a second thought in the first film, and turns him into deeply tragic, volatile villain. He may not be as intelligent as Caesar, but he’s about fifty times more arrogant and ruthless. Kebbell balances those elements, while never loosing sight of the character’s tragic roots as a lab ape who spent years being prodded and tortured at human hands. Not only is he perhaps the best villain of the summer, but he puts an actor who wasn’t even remotely on my radar before heavily within my sights. I can’t wait to see this guy as Doctor Doom now.
However, for as great as the apes are, they are offset by some borderline awful human characters. While all the apes are brimming with complexity, the humans are all extremely basic and only exist to fill one very specific function in the story. Jason Clarke perhaps comes off the best, his relationship with Caesar ultimately his character’s saving grace, but really, he’s just a generic guy who takes the leadership role because, well, Jason Clarke happens to be an up and coming actor right now. Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee might as well just be walking pieces of cardboard as Clarke’s family, never giving us much a family dynamic. Gary Oldman also comes off wasted here as the leader of the human tribe. Sure, he chews the scenery and has one or two moments of complexity, but his character doesn’t end up serving much of a purpose.
In fact, much of the first hour or so of this film doesn’t really serve much of a purpose. The story itself so small and thin that much of it is just spent meandering around the forrest, with the humans dourly working in the dam. It doesn’t help that the tone is so completely humorless that we can never attach ourselves to any of these bland characters, because they never get a chance to say anything interesting. Don’t be mistaken, whenever we’re spending time with the apes in this segment, it’s great, but these humans do their best to suck the life out of the proceedings. There needed to be more meat on the bones here, because really what the film ultimately is for a while is two groups arguing over separate sides of a forrest.
Then, the last act kicks in, and my god does it ever make up for whatever shortcomings came before it. Director Matt Reeves finally wakes up, and delivers what is essentially Apocalypse Now with apes. The warfare is so beautifully captured and barbaric, never for a moment numbing into endless action. Sure, every so often Reeves will make an odd choice here and there, but they for the most part pay off, particularly in one strangely angled mounted camera shot on a tank that results in one of the most unique frames of the year. This segment is also when the conflict between Caesar and Koba takes center stage, and since that’s the strongest element here, the movie shines.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film that lives in two different worlds. On one hand, it’s one of the most revolutionary showcases for visual effects ever put on film, managing to make characters who can hardly speak some of the most fascinating ones of the year and throwing them into one of the most thrilling climaxes I’ve experienced in a very long time. On the other, it’s a fairly drab film with boring human characters and a needlessly dragged out first act. As a whole, it seems like a good movie pretending to be a great one. Points to Reeves and company for ambition, but hopefully in the upcoming third film they can balance that ambition with the tight pacing and well roundedness of Rise. Still, if you want a blockbuster with an above average brain and a subtitle amount of brawn, this is your ticket (but only because Edge of Tomorrow is almost gone.)