It’s perhaps an unenviable task to come into a movie franchise
for the eighth instalment. Even though Dawn of the Planet of
the Apes is only the second in the prequel ‘Caesar Cycle’ of
films, it still has a weight of expectation dating back to 1968’s
Charlton Heston-starring original. Yet here, director Matt Reeves
crafts a startling vision of the downfall of one society against
the birth of another, making it a film that stands on its own
merits as much as a part of the great Apes whole.
Ten years have passed since the events of Rupert Wyatt’s
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but Reeves picks up
without skipping a beat, even opening with the same visual that
ended Wyatt’s film, that of the spreading virus that devastates
humanity’s numbers. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the intelligent
chimpanzee raised by James Franco in the last film, has built his
own community of rapidly evolving apes — gorillas, orangutans, and
fellow chimps — and humans haven’t been seen for much of the past
The few human survivors have gathered under the leadership of
Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) in the remains of San Francisco, but things
aren’t looking good. Power has run out and resources are low,
leading a squad lead by Malcolm (Jason
Clarke) out in search of anything that will aid their survival.
Good news – there’s a hydro-electric dam near their camp. Bad news
– it’s right where Caesar’s tribe has built their kingdom, and
Acevedo) has just shot one of the apes.
So begins two hours of rising tensions between the factions,
with Reeves refusing to paint either side as the bad guys. As
Malcolm and his wife Ellie, a nurse (a tragically under-used Keri Russell, who
nevertheless impresses with her limited material and screen time),
reach out to Caesar, striving to build a world where both species
can live in peace, we see the best of both species. We also see
their similarities, with both ‘leaders’ having family troubles;
Caesar with rebellious teen son Blue Eyes, Malcolm struggling to
protect his artistic, withdrawn son Alexander from a world that’s
already taken too much from him. The humanity — in quality, if not
species — of both protagonists shines through.
But we know it’s not to be. Both Carver and Koba (Toby Kebbell),
Caesar’s distrustful and aggressive lieutenant, make moves against
the other race, while factions in each camp start to take up arms,
preparing for inevitable war. It’s almost painful to see the
threads of hope fritter away, despite the heroes’ best efforts.
There’s an emotional weight and desperation to everything that
happens, and never more so than when Koba, the serpent in Caesar’s
Eden, poisons the mind of Blue Eyes and uses him to wrest power
from the wiser ruler.
However, it’s not just two hours of inter-primate politics. When
said inevitable war strikes — filling almost the entirety of the
final third of the movie — it’s a cinematic adrenaline rush.
Koba’s ape siege of lonely San Francisco is powerful in its
brutality, from both sides. Human firepower is outdone by ape
agility and strength, only for Koba to reveal himself as being just
as petty and vengeful as his hated enemies.
What really impresses, beyond the technical wizardry of the
performance capture that allows Serkis and co. to stand out (and
upright) as the apes, is the continuity amongst the apes
themselves. Caesar was always going to be the focus, but the fact
that Koba and Maurice, an orangutan, both return almost surprises.
The background apes aren’t background at all — they’re as
important as any of the human characters, with their experiences in
the previous film impacting their behaviour and choices here.
That’s what makes Koba’s rage and destructive actions so potent: as
a former vivisection subject, he only knows humans as an abusive,
harmful race, and so his efforts to bring about our destruction
have an air of righteous fury about them.
That performance capture is truly remarkable though. On a purely
visual level, the apes look 100% authentic, terrifying in their
barbarous strength yet strangely comforting in the film’s more
tender moments, particularly one between Alexander and Maurice,
bonding over more intellectual pursuits. There are even a few
comedic points where the ape cast draw on ‘performing monkey’
stereotypes only to then juxtapose them with calculating savagery
and shocking violence, and both takes work perfectly. After a
while, you stop telling yourself they’re CGI masterpieces and just
accept them as integral figures in the movie.
One subtle but brilliant touch that deserves highlighting is the
apes’ speech. At the beginning of the film, almost all of them
communicate using sign language, bar Caesar who utters a few words.
As the film progresses and humanity’s hopes dwindle, more of the
furry cast start getting chatty. First a few words, then broken
sentences, then almost perfect English. It’s a clever way of
demonstrating the literal rise of the apes and their society. At
the same time, Dreyfus and the remaining humans, much to Malcolm’s
chagrin, give in to their worst instincts out of pure desperation
— the downfall of man.
This is not a movie with a happy ending, but then, we know that
— it’s not Planet of the Apes and Humans Living in a Frosty
Accord, after all. What really hits home though is that no-one
really wins, and even Caesar is regretful at the direction Koba’s
actions doom history to. It’s bleak, but you won’t leave the cinema