I have been a fan of the Planet of the Apes series but had purposefully avoided the newest film in the franchise, Dawn of Planet of the Apes, because the previous film was I think not as good as it could or should have been. I have always felt that science-fiction films work best when they can be seen as or are allegory to issues of the day, and Dawn of Planet of the Apes I think can be seen as that. I also think that it is among the best of the POTA films because it is not afraid to be dark, to tackle the sense of fear, paranoia, and violence it deals with. That isn't to say it's perfect, but Dawn is I think, like the original and Escape From Planet of the Apes, a simply fantastic film that works on both the story we see and what it is subtly telling.
Picking up from the events of Rise of Planet of the Apes, humanity has been devastated by the simian flu, which has killed millions. The apes at the center of this flu have moved to the forests of northern California and both sides deliberately avoid the other. The ape leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis) does not want humans near his fellow apes, but he does not want to go to war with them. This is more than can be said for Koba (Toby Kebbell), who is still bitter about the experiments the humans performed on him and thirsts for revenge.
Things remain at an uneasy peace until 'man enters the forest'. The humans, armed, have entered the ape realm in order to attempt to use the defunct dam in the apes' territory to provide power to the dying survivors' community in San Francisco. The leader of the expedition, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), along with his wife, nurse Ellie (Keri Russell) and Malcolm's son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are both terrified of the apes and in awe of them. They believe that rapport can be reached where both sides can coexist peacefully. Caesar is not hostile but not welcoming either. There are efforts on both sides to try to bridge the divide, but there are those on the other side who still fear the other.
On the ape side, there is Koba, and on the other, there is Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who is still haunted by all that he has seen and lost (including his family due to the simian flu). Eventually, both sides reach an agreement: a small party can come to repair the dam, but they must be unarmed. Things appear to go well despite one of the humans having snuck in a weapon (the relationship being repaired when Ellie saves Caesar's wife with medication), but Koba, distrustful and itching for a fight, goes into human territory and takes weapons, killing two men he disarmed in the process.
Koba has decided to lead a silent coup by torching the ape village, attempting to assassinate Caesar (despite the cardinal law of the apes "Ape No Kill Ape", and blame the humans. The few sympathetic apes help Malcolm and the others flee, but now Koba has taken full charge and takes the ape army to San Francisco in an effort at total extermination. Dreyfus and the humans attempt to defend the city, but the apes' strength and their overwhelming firepower overwhelms the city and San Francisco falls. What follows is a bloodletting orgy that would put the fall of Troy to shame. When one young ape refuses to kill unarmed humans, Koba's response is to drag the young ape to the top floor of San Francisco City Hall and hurl him to his death, horrifying his fellow apes.
Malcolm and Ellie discover that Caesar is not dead but wounded, and the ape leader is heartbroken that his fellow simians are as capable of cruelty as the humans. He also sees that humans are capable of good and have turned out to be better friends than the apes he trusted. The humans manage to bring his son Blue-Eyes (Nick Thurston) to his father, where Caesar learns that both humans and apes loyal to him have been imprisoned. Caesar advises on how to retake power from Koba, and despite his injuries Caesar and Koba have a final battle on Coit Tower for power. Malcolm, meanwhile, has to stop Dreyfus from blowing up the tower to allow Caesar a chance. In the end, there is no real resolution, with war now all but inevitable, and both Malcolm and Caesar mourn the lost chance for peace.
What people forget is that the original Planet of the Apes, apart from being great science-fiction, was also sharp political allegory, specifically about race relations as the civil rights movement was turning from passive resistance to more militant actions. While Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver's screenplay might not have had this plan in mind, while watching Dawn of Planet of the Apes I could not help think of ISIS and their barbarism on the lands they have captured. The hatred the apes have towards all those who are not like them I see reflected in ISIS' destruction of fellow Muslims mosques (let alone the destruction of Christian churches), which is perhaps the least monstrous thing they have done.
Just like ISIS has publicly beheaded and crucified Christians, Koba's shocking act of murder of a young ape who refused to kill unarmed humans to me reflects the madness that overtakes beings who have decided who deserves to live and who deserves to die.
What elevates Dawn of Planet of the Apes is the intelligence behind it. This Apes film doesn't just seek to entertain with a fantastic adventure story (which it does) but it also treats the story seriously. It understands that the premise has to be played straight, with no winking to the audience. The world of Dawn is one that is believable because the idea that total war can be triggered by the smallest of actors/acts is realistic, and that the fear and paranoia of a few can overwhelm everyone in a tidal wave of terror.
Dawn also benefits from great performances. Not once did we ever question that Caesar or Koba were real. Andy Serkis is truly the master of motion-capture performances, having honed his craft as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films. Here, he brings pathos to Caesar, a wise leader who comes to trust humans. Clarke and Russell also were excellent as the humans who attempt to live in harmony with the apes, being perfectly serious. Oldman's Dreyfus was not a villain but someone who believed he was doing what was right to save humanity from the onslaught determined to exterminate him and his kind.
This is where Matt Reeves did a fantastic job: balancing the action (the siege and fall of San Francisco being especially thrilling) with the more quiet moments (such as when Caesar sees that apes are as monstrous as the humans he had so feared all these years).
Dawn of Planet of the Apes is a thrilling, intelligent picture. To me, it is among the best Planet of the Apes films, and here's hoping that the inevitable sequel does as well.
Planet of the Apes Retrospective: The Conclusions
Next Planet of the Apes Film: War for Planet of the Apes