A Sci-Fi Honey Review by Katie

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Three years ago, director Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes reinvented the classic yet campy tale of “apes gone wild” in a dystopian society overrun with murderous monkeys.  Wyatt’s film brought an emotional component to the Planet of the Apes mythology that was sorely lacking in previous installments and even more recent attempts at a reboot (I’m looking at you, Burton).  Taking over for Wyatt in this year’s sequel, in theatres worldwide this weekend, Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes drives his narrative with the same emotional element that made its predecessor so compelling, while at the same time upping the stakes on a global level.  It’s a worthy companion piece to Rise and a viciously mesmerizing film in it’s own right, thanks to Reeves’ masterful direction and the reprisal of the Caesar role by everyone’s favorite Gollum, Andy Serkis.

Set ten years after the conclusion of the last film, which ended hanging on the implications of a single sneeze from a Simian Flu-infected human, Dawn essentially begins with the implications of a single gunshot.  Simian Flu is alleged to have killed every human on the planet; the apes, having escaped to the woods north of San Francisco shortly after the events of the first film, fashioned an existence predicated on education, infrastructure development, and a philosophy of peace championed by their benevolent leader, Caesar.  A few humans have survived, however, and the gunshot that rings out as a result of their meeting sets off a chain of deadly and disastrous consequences.  The “Caesar” of the human group is Malcolm, played by Jason Clarke, who is the first to try to bridge an understanding between the two species, for the benefit of both civilizations.  Even though Caesar found his voice in the last film, it is still chilling to see the way humans react to his intellect, silencing the room with a single word and commanding the attention of a captive audience in a tone barely audible above that of a whisper.
Shut the fuck up, Caesar is talking. 
While Caesar is a noble hero, Dawn has arguably the most hated villain on screen this year in murderous ape Koba.  While human and ape camps alike have their share of motives both pure and wicked, dissenters from peace as well as world-weary heroes trying to avoid losing any more than they already have, Koba stands out as the sinister end of the film’s moral compass.  Blinded by his emotional rage stemming from years of abuse in a cage at the hands of humans, his trauma is easily understood; yet as his decent into madness takes over, his unbridled fury is palpable both to those onscreen and off (in one particularly devastating act by Koba, the gentleman in the seat next to me clasped his hands over his mouth in utter shock.  I’m right there with you, buddy).  What makes the hero/villain dynamic of this film so compelling is that neither parties are wholly to blame or wholly irreproachable for what transpires.  Even an act with the best of intentions can be misunderstood or brought forth beyond the control of the instigator, leading to a series of events that spiral into bedlam.  There are no plainly drawn heroes and villains in Dawn; only intentions, actions, and consequences.

Apes with guns; usually not good consequences.
The action sequences in the film are first-rate (one shot, set atop a tank, literally left me breathless), but Dawn’s actors really stand out as the core of the film’s greatness.  While the human actors in the film, including Clarke, Keri Russell, and the illustrious Gary Oldman, all have terrific and moving beats in their performances, highest deference must be paid to the actors who ape their way into making Caesar’s clan the more interesting of the two species.  Burton had some amazing ape-actors in his 2001 film, but too often their full range of emotion was stifled by heavy movie makeup and restrictive prosthetics.  Using motion-capture techniques, Andy Serkis as Caesar is able to convey everything from exuberance to defeat with merely a troubled gaze, a subtly downturned mouth, or the arch of an eyebrow.  As an audience member, I was absolutely transfixed on his every movement, eager to see what he would say or do next.

Someone give this guy a face Oscar, please.
Matt Reeves was an ideal candidate for helming this picture, and credits such as Cloverfield (2008) and Let Me In (2010) speak to his ability to balance delicate interpersonal relationships with the chaos and desolation of the surrounding environment.  The San Francisco of Dawn is a squalid half-jungle half-ghetto, teeming with overgrown foliage adorning now-forgotten concrete landmarks and dilapidated cable-car streets.  Within this sprawl our central characters, be they ape or human, build some semblance of a home.  At their core, both Rise and Dawn are about family; how different characters define it, the unconventional ways they form it, and how they will fight to either keep the family they’ve got or recapture what they’ve lost.  It’s a small seed of an idea, but Reeves and co. have brought it to fruition on a massive scale as the driving force behind peace and war.  Reeves is attached to a yet-to-be-titled third installment, and I’ll be the first in line to how far he takes it from here.

Sci-Fi Honey Rating:  Five ape-y grunts out of five!