It is ten years after the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and believing all humans to be dead, super-smart ape Caesar (Serkis) and friends have founded a peaceful proto-village in the woods around San Francisco. They are soon disturbed by a small group of humans, part of a larger community of survivors who are looking for solutions to an energy crisis. And so the delicate tensions between man and ape are on a knife-edge once again.
Boy, does it look good. From the apes miniature Endor to the humans rubble-strewn, crumbling, rusting, decaying San Francisco, the visuals are always stylish, deep and rich and feel totally real. There is a huge sense of spectacle in the superb action sequences too, which are perfectly choreographed, captured and edited, and the sense of realism permeates through each thrilling set-piece right until that gets thrown out of the window for the climactic fight…set on top of a collapsing tower. Original. Not seen that before. Sarcasm (and slight disappointment) aside, it is the first time that the computerised effects stick out like a sore thumb, and feels like Reeves has thrown out his careful marriage of effects to story and realism for the sake of a blockbuster ending. As such the sequence as a whole underwhelms.
Elsewhere Dawn… isn’t perfect. The human characters are basically broad archetypes (the pragmatic leader, the kindly everyman, the racist) and are hardly given chance to develop beyond those limitations. It means that while there are some gems to be found in moments when the action drops; many scenes and some parts of the plotting feel drawn out. If anything this makes Dawn… the opposite of Rise…, where the heavy lifting of James Franco and John Lithgow made it feel like so much more personal than just another action blockbuster.
The computer work to make Caesar – and indeed all of the apes – look almost photo-realistic is a staggering technical achievement; and Serkis puts in a performance to match. He makes it impossible not to form an emotional bond with the ape leader. With Tony Kebbell also impressing as Koba and with the team doing such a good job of making each important ape feel distinct and unique with personalities and character of their own, it seems the bigger shame that the humans are so by the book. They rely on performance too drag them along – Jason Clarke takes the character as written as far as he can, while Oldman has an interesting line in moving his limbs about as if he has ants in his clothes and emphasising WORDS at RANDOM.
The story feels quite limited too, not really moving the overall storyline on much at all; it’s sort of pausing to look for one moment in a much bigger time-scale; but the franchise is obviously just moving all the pieces into place for the third film.
The Verdict – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t actually try to do a whole lot, but it does what it does superbly. Hugely impressive visuals, fantastically structured action sequences and a brilliant blend of acting and CGI; the story may actually be quite basic but Reeves has still put it together well. And it features an ape riding a horse through some fire. What more do you want?