The Statue of Liberty lies collapsed on a beach as Charlton Heston unleashes a primal yowl, lamenting the fall of man. The climax of the original Planet of the Apes provided sci-fi cinema one of its most enduring and iconic images back in 1968. 46 years later, as with 2011’s surprisingly great series reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, knowing the inevitable violent conclusion Dawn… spends its runtime barreling towards is no barrier to enjoying its evolution.
Replacing Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ Rupert Wyatt in the director’s chair, after the British filmmaker locked horns with studio heads over the direction this sequel-to-the-prequel should take, director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) moves the story along a decade, with the humans now all but wiped out and Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his simian horde living peacefully in the hills of San Francisco following the last film’s chaotic finish on the Golden Gate bridge.
In the intervening years between the two films, the simian flu built in Will Rodman’s (James Franco) lab in Rise… has decimated mankind with only a few immune to its devastation. Dawn… finds San Fran’s survivors holed up in an outpost desperate for electrical power to aid their survival. Only one problem – the dilapidated dam that holds the answer to their prayers rests on Caesar’s turf. An uneasy truce is engineered, but as you might guess, not for long. Lead man Malcolm (Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke) soon finds his everyman facing off with Gary Oldman’s de facto human leader Dreyfus who believes in “saving the human race” from what he and his followers cynically dismiss as “talking apes with big spears.”
With both sides tooling up for armageddon the tension builds and inside 30 minutes Caesar has already made human jaws drop – yours will too – with a proclamation delivered on horseback: “Apes don’t want war but will fight if we must.”
Despite this, as Serkis has maintained in interviews, Dawn… is not a war movie. “It’s a peace movie… about avoiding conflict. It’s about empathy, it’s about family, and it’s about prejudice really, ultimately. Prejudice on both sides and how both sides deal with the other and how they manage that prejudice.” Indeed, Dawn… is about something bigger than that. It’s about nature, order and the unstoppable force of violence once it’s been let out its cage.
Speaking of cages, one of the film’s most interesting narrative threads sees Caesar’s son Rocket (Terry Notary) caught in the crossfire of loyalty to his father’s pacifism and Koba’s (Toby Kebbell) mutinous quest for revenge on the humans that maimed him in Rise…, desperate for them to know “life in a cage.” Watching in 3D, you’re pulled even further into his dilemma.
It’s thanks to great leaps in motion capture technology going all the way back to Gollum in Lord of the Rings (another Serkis character) that this film’s most moving moments come courtesy of the ape characters, whose levels of emotional detail were simply not possible only a few years ago.
We’re used to hearing the plaudits for the latest tech-heavy, superhero mash up and its eye-shredding FX but too often the inevitable mano-a-mano slug fest finale lacks any depth while descending into a cacophony of digital noise. As pure escapism it can work, but it’s reassuring to experience a film able to deliver both blockbuster visual thrills and characters you care about. Yes, this special effects monkey business has come a long way since blokes in hairy suits in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But this isn’t just a visual spectacle – Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes provides poignant pause – or should that be paws? – for thought too.