Ape expectations – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes review

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By Simon Miraudo
July 9, 2014

If we should take anything away from the terse title characters of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s the power of brevity. So, here’s my review: Apes together strong. Sequel merely solid. (The rest is for the human readers, sticklers for protraction.) This laboriously-titled follow up to 2011’s laboriously-titled Rise of the Planet of the Apes sees director Matt Reeves step in for the outgoing Rupert Wyatt, and though you wouldn’t necessarily think it’d be the job for the former creator of Felicity, he proves to be remarkably able. For a long time, however, his flick feels like it will merely be a bridge to a better movie, balanced uneasily between special-effects showcase and nature documentary. A great wave of relief comes when you realise the better movie lay in the second half, when gun-toting rebel chimps finally take to their horses and wage war against measly mankind.

Many will be pleased to learn Dawn delivers much more action than its ancestor. But action wasn’t missing from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which boldly experimented with the modern blockbuster by being as thoughtful and low-key for as long as possible, only exploding into a frenzy of activity in its final minutes. The contemplative pace and compelling special effects enthralled in spite of a lack of set pieces, and its highlight came when genetically-enhanced ape Caesar (a motion-captured Andy Serkis, animated to glorious perfection by effects house WETA), finally uttered his first spoken word: a howled “No.” Few moments in cinema have surprised or shaken me the way that one did. There’s a little more chatter in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and a lot more gunfire and fury. Its awesomeness knows no bounds. Yet, not a sequence in Dawn upended me like in the predecessor. It’s probably greedy of me to make the complaint, but this might be the one franchise that has spoiled us so that close to an hour of ape-on-horseback mayhem feels like a consolation prize to some other grand, missing, emotionally cathartic climax.

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Serkis once again brings great gravitas to what would be the otherwise ridiculous part of a benevolent, talking chimp king, whose deep belief in the ethos ‘ape shall not kill ape’ has helped his hugely intelligent flock to live in peace for close to a decade. The humans have been mostly wiped out, initially by the strain of Simian Flu (caused by the hopeful Alzheimer’s cure that accidentally made the apes smart), and then at their own hands, a result of their desperate looting and rioting as the seeming end-of-days closed in. A band of survivors in San Francisco, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), nervously await a second apocalypse, given a sliver of hope after discovering a dam near Caesar’s kingdom that might afford them enough power to stay alive. It’s on Malcolm to convince Caesar that they can indeed be trusted. This slight softening on Caesar’s part towards humankind allows the menacing Koba (a mo-capped Toby Kebbell) an opportunity to enact a coup d’état, and attempt to eradicate humanity for good.

Being about the similarities between men and ape-men, little love is given to the ladies in the cast. Judy Greer plays Caesar’s wife, defying typecasting by not playing Caesar’s wife’s friend. Keri Russell is also in this thing, making Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the unlikeliest Felicity reunion you could have ever imagined. She’s there to encourage Jason Clarke and help him be the best he can be. It’s a maddeningly underwritten role that’ll make you cry out for the halcyon days of Freida Pinto in Rise, who was doing some complex Blue Jasmine s*** by comparison.

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes is no perfect picture, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes betters it in a lot of ways. The notion of an arms race between two powers equalling destruction for all resonates beyond this amusing sci-fi tale, and the scene in which Caesar admits to his son, solemnly, that apes can be as animalistic and brutal as people bares the film’s rich vein of irony. Rise helmer Rupert Wyatt, as a visual stylist was… well, not one, and Matt Reeves, aided by the miracle-workers at WETA, take advantage of the absurd beauty of their subject and capture as many startling images as possible: two apes, pressing foreheads before a wall of flames; a tank’s turret spinning 360 degrees, beholding the full carnage of warfare. It’s no accident the final shot rests on a CGI ape’s eyes, zooming in until we’re no longer sure it’s CGI at all. This is a dare. “Look at what we made.” That may be the kind of hubris that undid civilisation in these very movies, but hey, they earned it.

3.5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s archive of reviews.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes arrives in cinemas July 10, 2014.

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