In 2014, the summer blockbuster has mostly been about how devoid of substance movies can be. These films appeal to our sensory needs, our yearning for pop, chaos, one-liners and lack of decent pacing and storytelling. The blockbuster itself, since the first modern moment with Will Smith in Independence Day, exists for the sole intent to feed the most cadaverous of emotions.
So far this summer, we've been handed movies that have a fetish for loud explosions and destruction, including Michael Bay's Transformers: Age Of Extinction and to a lesser extent 22 Jump Street. We enjoyed the bitter, stale slab of Autobots and dialogue on sloppy adlib because of our love for nostalgia. But Dawn of the Planet of The Apes understands its nostalgia, and its place among a canon that’s decades old (the original Apes series began in 1968) but its premise so simple. Civilization is breaking. Who are the heroes to mend it?
Dawn takes setting in San Francisco, a decade removed from the Simian Flu outbreak that rendered the world unable to fend for itself and instead inclined to feed on one another. Ceasar (Andy Serkis) has taken refuge in the wood area, building an ape utopia where there’s order and balance. Structurally, it's an inverse of what we've been given in terms of survival movies—humans are the brutal ones. Dawn isn't pragmatic in this approach, especially considering the dystopia humans are left to squalor in and the order established by the apes. The humans, led by Gary Oldman as Dryfus, seek power for survival; Ceasar in his best George Washington impression seeks independence and survival without conflict.
"Ape started war," Ceasar mutters near the end of the film. The Apes have become strong characters, cunning and capable but there's plenty of Greek tragedy to what Dawn offers through a hail of understated suspense and action. A 130-minute runtime offers plenty here, a large pulp of the screen dedicated to the film’s crux: human vs. ape interaction. Director Matt Reeves steers everything as you would a sports car, knowledgeable of its power but keen on when to use it.
Reeves’ shots of a depleted and grassy San Francisco look as if the worst dove over the city and suffocated it. The penultimate scenes of combative struggle light up in billows of fire, smoke and guns. This isn’t Bay’s aimless swing of a C4 button; this is strategic, manicured and thoughtful ruin and decay.
Ceasar here is once more a giant, a lingering piece of morality that stretches throughout the film. He's a noble leader, flawed in some practices but confident that his vision of human and apes trusting one another will prevail. This battle is no longer just his; he’s a father of a teenage son and a newborn. Ceasar's imprint on Dawn cannot be ignored, even if the intriguing and damaged character of Koba fixes himself to take the mantle as the Claudius to Ceasar’s King Hamlet or even more simpler, Scar to Mustafa.
The struggle still remains throughout the film, though much more defined near its close. Even as Oldman threatens to “save the human race” by defense and proclamation, nothing truly is saved. Ceasar and to an extent Reeves know this isn’t the end. Whatever perspective was laid out in 2011’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is increased here. War is approaching, and we’re merely spectators. —Brandon Caldwell
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, Starring Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke
Release date: July 11, 2014 | Runtime: 130 minutes | Rating: 4/4