It is really easy to forget many times during Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, that the creatures on the screen are not actual apes, but people doing performance capture/CGI work behind the scenes. Because in the latest edition of the Planet of the Apes franchise, the line between human and ape is blurred thanks to a story that is more rich and emotional than most human-only blockbuster stories.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up 10 years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes where Caesar and the others have found refuge in the forests near San Francisco. Since the previous film, the Earth has been taken over by a plague (named the simian flu) that has wiped out much of the population and left the cities desolate and scarcely lived in.
The apes have separated themselves from the humans, without much contact for the last few years, and have established a society that seems to be growing more advanced daily. Caesar enjoys his time with his wife and son, and enjoys the arrival of another child early on in the film. But their society is tested when a group of humans enters the forest with one accidentally shooting one of the apes. They don’t attack the group but Caesar warns them to leave.
The humans are led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) with helpers including Malcolm’s wife Ellie (Keri Russell) and son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The group was heading into the forest to try and jumpstart an old dam that would help the colony of people in San Francisco regain power. With the dam located beside the apes, Malcolm goes back alone to try and reason with Caesar.
The film never has a straight villain. There isn’t really a big bad that is outright established, instead, the story develops the bad guys through miscommunication, deception, and a way of life that isn’t ready to be broken yet. This dynamic reminds me of racial tension films (In the Heat of the Night) and the breaking of a way of life that has been implanted onto the minds of those too weak to think differently.
The blame can’t be put on Oldman’s Dreyfus for wanting to protect his people from the apes. For one, he never sees with his own eyes the care between Caesar and Malcolm and doesn’t understand what they want other than the ones attacking his people. For Koba, he sees humans as the enemy after he was locked up and tortured (during Rise) for so long. He is someone who is hurt and wants retribution for the atrocities committed on him.
This thin line that the story plays with is rare for a Hollywood blockbuster. For a film so large to play with the ideas of equality and make commentary on race and place in culture is astounding and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes handles it better than most, without throwing ideals in your face. Serkis plays Caesar with a calm demeanor, but one that has been hurt in the past as well. He shows that he wants to co-exist with the humans but also understands what they have done in the past to deserve force.
Director Matt Reeves understands the underlying tension and shoots the film like a Greek tragedy with flame and drama to coincide with the ape vs. human war. Couple that with the score by Michael Giacchino and the film sweeps into epic proportions much of the third act.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or the whole series for that matter, always can fall into being something silly because of the ape premise. But with this entry, the franchise continues to show that it is more than what is displayed on the outside and the characters inside are more emotional and relatable than any other blockbuster out recently.