Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: a blockbuster that doesn’t drag its knuckles

When it arrived in 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a rare beast. A re-reboot-slash-prequel to an over-saturated franchise, it somehow managed to bring something fresh and exciting to a decades-spanning brand. Rise was met with much praise from audiences and critics alike and, thankfully, the new sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes not only builds on what Rise began, but manages to improve on it. 

Dawn picks up 10 years after the events of Rise: the majority of humanity has been wiped out thanks to ‘simian flu’ and Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of a horde of advanced apes, watches over and guides his followers in an idyllic forest home outside San Francisco. Inevitably, the apes’ simple, peaceful existence is destroyed when a small group of human survivors stumble on the apes as they search for a power source to fuel their fledgling colony. 

Much of the buzz surrounding Dawn has been around the performance-capture technology used to realise the apes, and it’s easy to see why. Each individual ape has a distinctive look; they ride horses and use weapons; and they look so incredibly photo-realistic that they become true flesh-and-blood characters.

However, the technology is not the real star here. That award goes to the performances behind the CGI wizardry. Master of mo-cap Andy Serkis has created an icon in Caesar. He exudes leadership, and commands presence whenever he is on screen, a mix of stern leader and gracious messiah. He not only makes Caesar, a talking ape, feel believable, but multifaceted and complex.

From the apes to the humans, the characters in Dawn are never black and white. Toby Kebbell’s wounded, enraged right-hand ape Koba is a menacing presence in Caesar’s camp. Koba’s parallel in the human camp, Gary Oldman’s grieving fighter Dreyfus, is an antagonistic, and yet sympathetic, character. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the female characters, despite some great performances. But given how much is packed into the run-time, this oversight is easily forgiven. Dawn tackles complex themes involving family loss, survival, war and peace as Caesar and his human compatriot Malcolm (Jason Clarke) try to steer their respective camps away from a human-ape war.

In all, this is a masterclass in blockbuster filmmaking, merging memorable characters, excellent performances and an enticing story into a multiplex-friendly form. One of the best films of the year.

Jon Fuge is a writer based in London.

Watch the trailer for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:

 

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