“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” Movie Review

     The filmmakers behind “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” obviously realized early on the need to humanize the real stars of the film, those being the genetically evolving apes seen in the first film of the rebooted franchise “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”  It’s no coincidence director Matt Reeves opens the film with an extreme close up of Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) face and then pulls away to reveal an ape in the midst of hundreds of others as they coordinate a hunt for food.  We are meant as an audience to believe the apes we are seeing on screen are savage creatures, preying on the weak, and willing to do anything in order to survive, which is exactly what the human characters in the film believe as well.  When Reeves closes his film, he reverses the shot entirely.  Now having the benefit of witnessing the ordeal both the apes and humans have just been through, the camera zooms in slowly, revealing what could otherwise be the eyes of a human being.  As the main characters in this exceptional film come to realize, neither species is very different and both want the same thing for their families.

     Perhaps this will finally be the film in which motion capture performance star Andy Serkis (Gollum from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) gets the proper accolades for his work.  To observe his Caesar in this film is truly awe inspiring.  Keep in mind, this means he is acting out his scenes, which are considerable, in a suit that is designed to allow a computer to capture his every body and facial movement.  Digital effects artists then handle the 3D imagery, which in this case means creating the ape body, face, and hair.  The work completed here by Reeves and his effects team is nothing short of amazing.  I wouldn’t be surprised to find out most audiences may believe the filmmakers somehow trained real apes for the film.  Caesar has the look and feel of a real live character, no different than his human actor counterparts and he is also solely responsible for the film’s emotional core.  In fact, his emotions displayed scene to scene, whether it be anger, sadness, or happiness are incredibly more convincing than any of the human actors.

     In the film’s early scenes, Reeves establishes the society the apes are currently living in.  They have a habitat which seems to have an architecture that clearly indicates individual living spaces as well as common areas for social gatherings.  They mainly communicate using a form of sign language, but are also highly capable of expressing themselves verbally, as was briefly seen in the first film.  Caesar is the leader of the entire group and professes several important virtues in which he intends each ape to live by.  Family is the group’s number one cornerstone and the screenwriters immediately establish this through several scenes that involve Caesar’s son as well as his wife and newborn son.  In an appropriate homage to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Reeves uses the same haunting music used in that film’s prelude ape sequence during several key moments throughout the film.

     With a storyline involving a power struggle within the ape society, I’m convinced the entire film easily could’ve featured an all ape cast and been just as appealing.  Reeves; however, features a significant human story as well.  Taking place over a decade after the last film, humans have fallen to near extinction after a virus nearly kills everyone on the planet.  This has left pockets of survivors, including a large group in San Francisco who survive in much the same way the cast of “The Walking Dead” and every other dystopian scenario film or television series does.  Their current dilemma has them figuring out a solution to their waning power supply which they clearly depend on to survive.  They’re aware of a dam which is set up to generate electricity and think they have the means to turn it on, but soon realize the dam is on the land in which the apes call their own.

     Essentially the story is about two races that don’t trust one another, with a small handful on both sides who are willing to see past previous conflict and move forward.  In other words, it’s a story every mainstream audience will immediately relate to.  As placeholders within the necessary framework of having two clear sides, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, and Keri Russell do a fine job as the leaders of the surviving humans.  It is without a doubt though, this film belongs to Andy Serkis and all of the virtual performers who have brought to life this incredible ape cast.  “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is easily the best film so far this year and the clear winner of the summer movie season.  Reeves is no slouch in the action set piece department either, constructing numerous memorable and thrilling battle sequences. The sheer horror of seeing an ape on horseback riding through a wall of flames while firing an automatic weapon is the kind of imagery one is not likely to forget.  Conversely, there are several genuinely heartfelt moments throughout, all the while maintaining an intensity for over two hours that I haven’t seen in a film in quite sometime. GRADE: A