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In Rise of the Planet of the Apes something magic happened, the goose-bump inducing moment that Caesar says “NO,” one of the most enduring sci-fi franchises in cinematic history asserted its dominance on the contemporary blockbuster landscape. The series, continuing with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Dawn), has smarts, gorgeous innovation and pure, arresting entertainment.
It’s ten years after the “simian flu” has wiped out all but a fragment of the earth’s human population. We’re at ground zero in San Francisco where a group of survivors desperate to reignite a hydropower source to maintain survival venture into the forest and encounter Apes.
Writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver do an incredible job of providing a framework for the story to unfold that doesn’t rest on tiresome exposition. As the ape sphere of the story takes shape you realise that the lack of dialogue means that both the choice of what to have the apes overtly communicating becomes even more critical and often requires a completely separate performative element to supplement the meaning. The most important interactions in the human sphere of the story unfold equally briefly. The yearning for mutual understanding is so slick and the performers, both humans and motion capture performers as apes eat up the room to perform. Reeves and writers Bomback, Jaffa and Silver play out an almost Shakespearian echo in the plot and subplot that focus on that last heat signature of hope being suffocated by impulse and instinct, and explore the awakening of duplicity in the apes as they come to grasp with language.
Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) just has an innate sense of movement with his camera that staggers and stumbles without disorientating. At times you’re like a fighter that’s been rocked by a big punch and you’re desperate to stay on your feet, or slinging through the flurry of undergrowth during a stampede. Reeves isn’t only defined by his pace and action but in a locomotive steadiness shows the profound preciousness of the remaining humanity. While Reeves must be able to balance the aesthetic of life after civilisation as we know it; he and his ensemble conjure incredibly authentic gestural performances for their species while adding the unquantifiable ‘human’ dimension to this evolved version of the apes. Sound is such a critical dimension of Dawn. The natural growls, groans and guttural breathing enhance the exchanges of sign communication between the apes so profoundly. It must trigger some primal synapses to fire in the most animalistic recesses of your brain because I found myself just audibly gasping in awe.
The special effects are utterly spellbinding. Firstly Reeves balances the required digitised ape characters with a tangible, overgrown real spaces and sets for the actors (both motion capturing apes or playing humans) to have physical surrounds to play off of. Whether the characters are wandering through the blanket of oppressive wilderness or the crud of the once bustling city being swallowed by an encroaching nature you don’t feel enveloped and sanitised by the experience like a Star Wars prequel. The apes themselves are just jaw-droppingly great. The motion capture maestro/pioneer Andy Serkis is once again behind Caesar and the enhancements in technology are so good that they’re momentarily distracting. Every wave of subtle emotion cascading across his face seems to register in Caesar’s thick leathery skin. The more Caesar contests with the ape society built apart from humans, he can’t deny that he knows that some humans are good. Watching Serkis express the pangs of leadership through this tenuous (and dangerous) relationship is captivating.
While Rise of the Planet of the Apes showcased Serkis’ brilliance, it’s the motion capture support cast in Dawn that takes the technology to another level. Toby Kebbell’s scarred and damaged Koba is terrifying. When it’s blinding loyalty to Caesar and that hair-raising feeling that you’re one step away from being mauled by him is riveting. Karin Konoval’s wise and calming Maurice is sublimely beautiful. There’s power and an almost gravitational pull in the presence paired with warmth and serenity. This tech’ really hinges up the organic and soulful eyes of the apes and they’ve achieved a level of mastery that will almost bring a salty emission to your eyes as you’re watching. Gone is the glacial emptiness of Beowulf, now it’s like living, breathing organic matter.
Jason Clarke finally gets to share equal billing as Malcolm, one of the integral parts of the human survivors. He’s not wasted being a closed minded fool; instead he’s astounded by the sophistication of the apes that’s been hidden by a world that’s gone back to the technological Stone Age. His partner Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus is not intent on the fight to survive, they’ve had to weather humanity trying to cannibalise itself in the decades past. Their exchanges are loaded with that scarred past. Reeves alumni Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee fill out Malcolm’s family, their chops make the most of small roles.