Published Jul 11, 2014The rare summer blockbuster that thrives on real emotion and intelligence, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is even better than its surprisingly good predecessor. It fulfills seasonal mass-appeal requirements with some thrilling battle scenes, but these are only as effective as they are because of a first hour that's far more concerned with slowly establishing its characters and building their relationships.
Following the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) presides over his escaped band of primates in their new home in the woods. The intervening years have seen the world ravaged by a deadly flu borne by apes and an ensuing violent hysteria. The apes even believe that humans may be extinct, until they cross paths with a group of them one day.
The survivors of what's left of San Francisco, including Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), are desperate to use the dam on which the simians' home is situated to produce some much-needed electricity. Malcolm, favouring a more civil approach, takes a group that contains his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and girlfriend (Keri Russell) to try and persuade Caesar to allow them a chance at restoring it.
As they marvel at the apes' ability to talk and the intricacies of how their society functions, it's equally astonishing as a viewer to behold the startlingly realistic expressions of the apes that have been crafted through state-of-the-art motion capture technology. Serkis has already achieved legendary status for his work on The Lord of the Rings films, but the depth he imbues Caesar with just may be his crowning achievement when it's all said and done. Also worthy of praise in that regard is Toby Kebbell, who portrays a worthy rival to Caesar as the damaged and scheming bonobo, Koba.
This is a film capable of grandiose moments like a long take from a camera mounted on top of a tank as the apes swarm in combat and quieter ones like the giant but docile orangutan Maurice reading a book with Malcolm's son. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield and Let Me In) and his screenwriters organically mine conflict and suspense from the fragile nature of trust and the overwhelming allure of vengeance and power. When this tension finally erupts into all-out war on a massive scale, it only makes the exhilarating pay-off all the more satisfying.
It's a reminder of how even the most expensive explosions and pyrotechnics that can be captured on film can really count when the audience is truly invested in the fundamental matter of whether good will conquer evil in the end. This isn't just one of the best films of the summer — it's likely to be one of the best films of the year.