In 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out like an unforeseen force as it destroyed notions of the Apes franchise as being campy. As it climbed over the Golden Gate Bridge to sanctuary, there were glimpses of not only a violent uprising to follow, but of how impressively it mixed storytelling with cutting edge visual effects. It tore apart any pretension that man didn't influence environment (in this case negatively) and provided plenty to fear. The new Apes movies wouldn't chew scenery. It would commentate on society via a more slick, dark, and inspiring model that destroys all of its blockbuster counterparts with sheer energy. For those thinking that Rise of the Planet of the Apes felt slight at all, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an adrenaline shot pushing morals and commentary even further with an all out war between apes and man. More-so than nihilistic counterpart Godzilla, this film packs one of the most amazing punches in a blockbuster with nonstop action that is used effectively for commentary. To sum it up, the Apes franchise is one of the most unexpectedly relevant.
It does seem inevitable that this series will turn into the post-human realm of the 1968 original film. That is why it seems funny to hear Caesar (Andy Serkis) claim that "There is one chance for peace" early on in the film with a humble society that exists flawlessly with education and housing (or their equivalence). The apes have evolved into rational creatures that only react to violence and spend their days hunting and surviving. It appears that the attacks from the previous film were more out of protection than aggression. In fact, things are peaceful until Koba (Toby Kebbell), who was formerly a lab subject forced to horrible tests, finally snaps and sets the course for the apocalyptic future by interrogating man and stealing their firearms. From there, he leads a rebellion and the quest for The Planet of the Apes environment is set in motion.
The film doesn't waste time in setting up the universe. It is desolate, without power, and leaves many desiring the olden days. However, the story quickly turns into a full-on war film when a small prejudice towards an accidental attack leads man to start building armaments. The new epidemic is fear of extinction on both sides. Nobody is more upset by this than Koba, who aimlessly shoots his gun at humans and imprisons those who defies him. It is anarchy caused by paranoia of being imprisoned for not being protected with weaponry. As a result, nobody is safe because bullets hail from the sky, threatening to kill anyone who is not attentive.
If there is one particular scene that effectively sums up director Matt Reeves' intentions, it is one involving a tank with a rotating top. Midway through the battle, Koba hops on top and begins shooting as it drives forward. We see the chaos on all sides in a single shot, and it is beautiful in its tragedy. All of it plays like chaos and is the crown to this anarchic attack. It is violent, unpredictable, and tragic. Among all of the aggression is Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), Caesar's son, who is forced to watch the destruction caused by everyone involved. If there is one thing that WETA Digital has done amazingly well for this film, it is conveying emotion through eyes. More than the scenic shots of mass apes, Blue Eyes' facial structure resonates sympathy and much like the already complex language system, says so much with so little.
The film plays like the sci-fi blockbuster version of Platoon. The Oliver Stone anti-war film took hyper-violence and realism to amazing heights that forced audience to reckon with the Vietnam War's emotional and physical turmoil on its subjects. It is essentially a war scar. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes achieves the same thing through a rebellious film that pushes everything forward and by focusing on the violence, creates awareness on so many important issues including gun violence, prejudice, egos, misunderstandings, and control of general power. Basically, all of the themes of a social structure. If Rise focused on the fault of man, Dawn focuses on the fault of everyone. Nobody is innocent if they give into disorder. As wondrous as the violence is, it comes with an important subtext, causing it to feel more relevant and striking than many of its blockbuster peers. Most of all, it asks the audience to dissect these messages instead of giving a clear statement. It works like a war scar, which may heal, but will never be forgotten.
Reeves has created an impressive adaptation of the Apes franchise that is likely to rank among the best. It is bold and unrelenting in both its style and approach to technology. Its motion capture actors become more prominently deserving of recognition here as the apes become more sympathetic and the visual communication skills are more fluid. Each one is distinct and the film serves as a thesis to how to properly do a summer blockbuster with scale. There's countless beautiful shots of destruction and the camera's motion feels organic to the complicated, fast paced motions. It grabs the audience's attention and makes itself feel important. It is bolder, louder, maybe even more boastful than its predecessor, and that isn't a bad thing. Along with the eclectic score by Michael Giacchino, the universe feels authentic and lived in with a small hint of chaos.
While not immediately blatant, it is also interesting to see this as Reeves' western. Opening on a Sergio Leone-patented shot of an ape's eyes looking angrily at the camera, it helps to convey the torture and menace to follow. There's countless standoffs and the potential chance to juxtapose the cowboys (humans) and Indians (apes) debacle almost creates a Broken Arrow story (though not as subtle) about peace among tribes. There's even the use of the familiar doorway shots a'la The Searchers scattered throughout. It works as a post-apocalyptic western like The Wild Bunch in that its an exploration of masculinity and survival in dire times. The presence of horses-as-transportation helps the case. There's a whole dissection that could be made why Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the best western in years, largely because it revises it on a scale so illogical that the film's success is a blessing.
In the end, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the quintessential summer blockbuster. It has relevant subtext likely to remain relevant for decades. It has groundbreaking technology and some of the best motion capture performances of the year. It is a film that asks for your attention and then doesn't let go as it rides mercilessly into a violent abyss that wants more out of life. It is a call for peace and the unfortunate ways it cannot be achieved. Its camera work is adept to the action and the film excels its predecessor correctly in every way possible. It is jaw dropping impressive while never straddling a singular side to the issues presented. In a sense, everyone is at fault and it is only in the madness that one can fully understand how the carnage caused by paranoia, prejudice, and weaponry rarely leads to a more civilized environment.