One thing I like about being a fan of film is that there are some that have the power to surprise you when you think they might be duds. In 2011 Rupert Wyatt surprised and delighted moviegoers and movie critics alike when brought us the better-than-it-should-have-been Rise of The Planet of The Apes. The movie went on to gross over 176 million here in the States and over 305 million worldwide making it a bonafide hit and ripe for a sequel with Caesar and the rest of the apes evolving mentally and about to create their own civilization. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that rare sequel that is better than its predecessor and drives the narrative of Caesar and his burgeoning society forward while offering poignant moments not found in many summer blockbusters.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up a decade after the first film. The human population, with the exception of a few, has succumbed to a mysterious disease called The Simian Flu. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is leader of a society in Muir Woods and is now married to a female ape named Cornelia (Judy Greer) and together they have a hard headed son named Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and another son on the way. The humans, led by Malcom (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), are just trying to survive day by day, but won’t for much longer unless they can get power in the damn restored that just happens to be near the apes’ home. Can this uneasy alliance survive or will a war that will devastate both sides threaten to break it?
Right away this movie will draw comparisons to Empire Strikes Back because it's that rare sequel that takes everything the first movie did and improves upon it while striking a darker tone. The setting and colors of the night play into the fact that things won’t turn out great between the apes and humans by the end of the movie. Characters are darker than they’ve were in the last film with Caesar and Koba leading the charge. Caesar, who was just beginning his ascent in the previous film, is now leader of the apes and must make tough decisions that don’t always sit well with other members of the civilization. This brings about a mutiny and betrayal by Koba and, even his own son as the war between humans and apes intensifies when Koba instigates the war by shooting Caesar and blaming it on human technology.
Once Koba convinces others to attack the humans, it’s when the situation comes to a bloody head. Koba is most likely the darkest character in the film with his distaste for humans showing after what was done to him in the testing lab. One thing this movie has going for it is character. Andy Serkis, Nick Thurston, Toby Kebbell, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, and Judy Greer all make you forget that the apes aren’t real and make you see them as real characters or even flesh and blood human beings. When one of the apes gets sad, angry, or happy you feel that same emotion they feel and that it because the writing is very top notch. Before we even see one human in the film, we spend at least the first ten to fifteen minutes of the movie seeing how the apes have evolved and how they are living now that they are free from human control. This sets up the impending war that starts to brew in the beginning when one of the apes is shot by Carver (Kirk Acevedo). Once Caesar is shot, Koba and the rest of the apes who decide to follow him go on a rampage killing and mauling humans, which shows you the true natures of both species. As great as this movie is, it has a big glaring flaw that most might overlook: its treatment of women. Ellie (Keri Russell) is nothing more than a support system for Malcolm. She doesn’t do any fighting and is more of an ancillary character than anything. Cornelia, wife of Caesar, just lies on the ground sick and pregnant while other characters get more to do. Considering that Judy Greer spent months prepping for the role, it’s a big shame they couldn’t find more for her to do. Also, there aren’t really that many female characters that are shown or have a presence. This is a big problem because women are already being underappreciated and underrepresented in movies and a big summer blockbuster like this just magnifies the problem.
Andy Serkis is an underrated actor and just because he does motion capture, doesn’t make his performances any less powerful. Trying to make a character seem real or sympathetic is an art and one that isn’t easy at all and he knocks it out of the park effortlessly. His sad face at the end of the movie sets up the third and probably final movie of this great trilogy as being even grimmer than this movie because now humans and apes are even more divided than ever before. Jason Clarke is good as the leader of the human race trying to make peace with a species that is increasingly outnumbering humans at every waking moment. Gary Oldman and the aforementioned Keri Russell are wasted in the miniscule roles. Having two actors of their caliber was a smart move, but relegating them to background status wasn’t.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of those rare movies that happen to outshine its predecessor in a crowd of increasingly dumb and soulless movies. Even with the lack of a female presence, great performances, writing, and characters help this movie soar above the competition to become, along with Snowpiercer, one of the best films of the summer.