Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Look at that poster up there. Seriously, take a good hard look at it. Does that not grab your attention right off the bat? If not, then ask yourself a question. Like, "why does a poster of a great ape on horseback wielding a machine gun not arouse my interest?" That shot up there is absolutely badass, and it would've had me pumped to see this movie even if I hadn't already known that it was a sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a surprisingly awesome reboot of a classic film that managed to do it justice, tell a complex tale of the best intentions going horribly wrong, and still be a great action movie on top of it. And Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is, amazingly, just as good as that film, working on all the same levels that Rise did without getting tangled up in continuity and requiring you to have seen the prior film first (though if you haven't, fix that now). Entering the third month of a summer movie season that has seen awful movies rake in big bucks and good ones flop at the box office, with awfully few bright spots to redeem it, it was about damn time that this came along. As it stands now, Dawn is on my list of the best movies of 2014, and certainly the best blockbuster of this summer so far.
The film takes place ten years after the first one, with the escaped apes having inadvertently released a "simian flu" that killed off a significant percentage of humanity, with most of the rest killing each other or starving to death as civilization collapsed -- all helpfully recapped in a wonderfully-done opening credit sequence. The apes now live in the redwood forests north of San Francisco, convinced that the last remnants of humanity are all gone, at least from the area. That changes when they run into human survivors exploring their territory, where they learn the truth: the simian flu and the ensuing anarchy have burned themselves out, and the immune survivors are regrouping and working to rebuild civilization. One large group in San Francisco is seeking to reactivate a hydroelectric dam located in the apes' territory, bringing humans and apes into conflict with each other and also opening divides within each side. With the apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) hopes to strike a deal with the humans in exchange for the dam, while Koba (Toby Kebbell), who had been cruelly abused in a laboratory before his escape, distrusts their motives and fears that giving the humans the dam will make them more powerful and allow them to conquer the apes later on. Meanwhile, the humans Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell) butt heads with Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the leader of San Francisco; all three of them wish to come to a deal with the apes, but while Malcolm and Ellie trust them, Dreyfus doesn't, and puts the humans on a militant posture to show the apes that they wouldn't be wise to go back on their word. Despite the best efforts of Caesar, Malcolm, and Ellie, mutual distrust eventually boils over into a confrontation between man and ape.
The story here is far from your usual excuse to blow shit up, playing out like a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi version of a political thriller about two nations on the brink of war -- the only difference being that one of those nations is composed of sentient, intelligent great apes. It's not until more than halfway into the film that we find out who the true villain is, with both Koba and Dreyfus being morally disagreeable but both having legitimate reasons not to trust the other side or their more conciliatory compatriots. Much like the first film, it's a morally complex tale of people (and apes) whose good intentions are undone by the seemingly well-meaning actions of those around them, with tragic consequences for all involved. Without spoiling anything, the final battle had my eyes glued to the screen for more than just the spectacle of apes wielding machine guns.
Jason Clarke and Keri Russell both do well as the human leads, but it's Andy Serkis and Gary Oldman who steal the show as the leaders of the apes and the humans respectively. Serkis' performance was especially impressive given that he was playing a motion-captured CGI chimpanzee who, thanks to amazing special effects, looked indistinguishable from the real thing. Thanks to Serkis and the special effects team, I didn't feel that I was watching a computer-generated construct on screen, or a man in an ape suit, but rather, a real chimpanzee who had learned to communicate and wield weapons -- and I felt the same way about all the other apes. The performances, the effects work, and the smaller creative touches (such as having the apes speak in sign language, using words only to drive a point home) were all that damn good, and more than anything, helped to sell a fantastical premise and make me believe in the apes and their forest kingdom. Oldman, meanwhile, makes the most of his limited screen time as Dreyfus, a complicated bad guy that I couldn't bring myself to hate because he's just that sympathetic. He's a great foil for Malcolm and Ellie, and the scene where he breaks down upon looking at pictures of all the friends and family he's lost was truly haunting, showing us why Dreyfus acts the way he does better than any grand speech could have. He was so good, in fact, that I wished he had more screen time. Ditto for Caesar's sick wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), who seems like she originally had a much larger role that was mostly cut for time. Given how tight the film was otherwise, though, I shouldn't be complaining.
All that drama, all those great performances, and still, at the end of the day, it bears repeating that this is a movie that features apes on horseback dual-wielding machine guns. The excellent buildup to the third-act battle would've made it enthralling even if it were a fairly run-of-the-mill fight scene with all the annoying tricks that litter big Hollywood blockbusters today, but at the same time, that final battle as it stands would've redeemed the film even if (like the new Godzilla movie) the drama building up to it had been subpar and unengaging. Combine this film's great finale with everything that came before, though, and it becomes that much stronger, hooking me and reeling me in harder than any film this year has managed to do. It should've been obvious after Cloverfield and Let Me In, but if it wasn't, let me say it now: Matt Reeves is one of the best action directors working in Hollywood today. From the one-on-one fights that pepper the first half of the film to the massive battles and cat-and-mouse chase scenes at the end, he shot the action in this like a pro, kicking my ass all over the multiplex with every frame. No wannabe-Paul-Greengrass shots pulling me out of the action or making it hard to follow here! This film revels in its basic premise during the action scenes just as much as it did during the quieter moments. I must stress again that the poster's big money shot plays out in the film almost exactly like it did up there, and that's not even the height of how awesome this film can get.
Score: 5 out of 5
If you want an awesome movie, go see this. If you want a really good one, well, that's even more reason to go see this. It's the best action movie of the summer so far, working in terms of emotional depth, a complex story, and do I really need to remind you of the poster? Yeah, it's good.