Starring Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, and Toby Kebbell. Rated PG. Now playing
When a property has been made and remade for over 50 years into numerous books, television programs, and movies, you’d assume that the source material was basically something sunny. After all, we’re escapists, right? We love happy endings, don’t we? In the case of Planet of the Apes, apparently we don’t. Apparently, audiences enjoy stories in which humanity is tragically reduced, then enslaved, before the Earth itself is annihilated. Good times!
Despite the fundamental bleakness of the Apes series, the movies themselves have an undeniable pull. The concept lends itself to metaphors for race, class, and creed, making them thematically ambitious (even preachy) while maintaining the insulation of make-believe. And as violent as the action gets, there’s something wistful in the erasure of the line between humans and animals.
Also, some of them just plain kick ass, this one arguably most of all.
A direct sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn picks up the story 10 years after the invention of a virus that raised intelligence levels in experimental primates while being almost invariably lethal to people. Caesar (Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee who was among the first of the apes to receive augmented intelligence, is the leader of an ape colony in the redwoods outside of San Francisco. His tribe is literate, well fed, and fairly peaceable, and Caesar enjoys family time with his wife and sons.
Unfortunately, the discovery of a human colony led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) triggers unrest, particularly in Koba (Toby Kebbell), a bonobo who cannot forgive humanity for the abuse he and his friends suffered as lab animals. Koba is a dangerous extremist, but because Caeser and Malcolm are wise, reasonable leaders, things should work out.
Obviously, they don’t; it’s an Apes movie. But despite its predictable arc, Dawn is gripping. Director Matt Reeves keeps the tension high, while coaxing a spellbinding performance from Andy Serkis. In his Caesar, performance and technology merge into a fully believable, nuanced, complex character who is—in the words of Roddy McDowell’s Caesar—not human, but humane. Of the great apes, Serkis’s Caesar is the greatest, and Dawn nearly rises to his level.