Another good movie in a good year of movies!
This year has been a real treat for my movie sensibilities! Usually, a given year might have one or two high-quality movies that stand above the rest of the dumb summer popcorn flicks. But it's not even August yet, and I've already seen five really good movies. The year started off well with the quirky, sci-fi romance story Her (which I meant to review, but never got around to it). Then, Captain America Winter Soldier turned out to be an exceptional super hero spy thriller. I already reviewed X-Men Days of Future Past and Edge of Tomorrow - both of which I also really liked!
So far, the only disappointment has been the poorly-written Amazing Spider-Man 2 (but this was kind of to be expected, thanks Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci). I also have no interest in Transformers 4 or Ninja Turtles, since those both look like standard Michael Bay garbage.
And so we come to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a sequel to the prequel / reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Rise was a surprisingly good movie that did an excellent job of humanizing a CGI monkey. Dawn picks up ten years after the last movie ended. The virus that James Franco's character created in the lab as a potential treatment for Alzheimer has spread to the rest of the population and almost wiped out the human race, leaving only the small fraction of people that are genetically resistant to it.
The first humans don't even appear until about 20 minutes into the movie. Then tensions continuously build.
The whole first act of the movie doesn't include a single human character at all, or even any dialogue. Instead, it depicts the ape characters and their culture and social structure, and it really helps to build up the apes as sympathetic characters. In fact, by the time, I left the theater, I couldn't even remember the names of any of the human characters, since so much of the movie's focus was on the apes (and since the apes keep reminding us of their names by referring to themselves and each other in third-person).
Like its predecessor, Dawn ends up being a very character-driven movie in which every character (both "good" and "bad") is relatable. The major ape characters all receive major arcs in the movie, including the leader, Caesar, his son, and the movie's eventual primary antagonist, Koba. When human characters finally are introduced, the movie begins dramatically ramping up the tensions. The major human characters also receive some development, with each being given histories that help to inform their motivations and actions. Both sides have characters that act responsibly and diplomatically, as well as characters that act belligerent. But even these more hostile characters have understandable motivations - even if the motivation is just simple fear. No one is evil for the sake of being evil; although, Koba does become quite unlikable by the end of the movie, even though we can still understand why he is so resentful.
The apes are very human-like in their behavior. They have families, friendships, and also betrayal and political power-mongering. When the apes' simple lives are made more complicated by the arrival of humans, the status quo falls apart, and political bickering begins.
There's very little action, but the building tension acts as a way of keeping the audience engaged. Much of the conflict is moral and ethical, as both sides have to struggle within themselves with how to treat the other side. There's a constant sense of anticipation, since the tensions could explode into full-blown conflict at any moment.
When the inevitable war finally erupts, the action feels so much more intense and engaging since the whole film built up to it. But since both sides of the conflict are equally well-characterized and developed, the audience isn't really rooting for either the humans or the apes. Instead, we root for specific characters on both sides. This makes the fighting appear particularly brutal and frightening, since we feel sorry whenever a human or ape is hurt or killed.
The inevitable action is an excellent payoff for the hour of tension-building.
There's definitely some anti-war allegory in here, as well as some racism parables and other nuanced moral and ethical themes. But Dawn never becomes too preachy or ham-fisted. Andy Serkis provides a very convincing performance as Caesar, who definitely seems to struggle with the complicated decisions that are suddenly thrust upon him, with the future of two whole species hanging in the balance.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an excellent follow-up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and very well could be the best movie of this summer. It may seem a bit slow at the start, but the characters are likable enough to suck an audience in, and action in the second half pays off brilliantly! This movie does about everything that you could possibly ask of a science fiction movie about as well as you could possibly ask it be done.