Title: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Genre(s): Action, Drama, Science Fiction
Director(s): Matt Reeves
Release Year: 2014
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a magnificent film. Not because it does anything original; not because it breaks new ground; and not because it reinvents the wheel. It is a magnificent film because it uses revisionist film-making to make a point. It understands that good science fiction has something to say, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has something very poignant to tell the audience. It takes a human story and uses apes to tell it. By doing so, Matt Reeves manages to highlight the simplicity in the story, but also reinvigorate what it means to be a science fiction film.
The movie picks up years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes escalated into a world where Caesar (Andy Serkis) is essentially the ruler of the world, or at least in the scope of the film. Humans aren’t even considered to still be alive, and there are rules which the apes live by. They are rules which are reminiscent of Moses and the Ten Commandments, but more limited and devoid of religious association. However, they are the beginning of a civilization. That is where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes excels: it demonstrates the evolution from tribalism to civilization by simply restarting the world.
What the writers – Mark Bomback, Amanda Silver, and Rick Jaffa – do is make a case for how civilizations can crumble, but also how one can learn from history. Humans didn’t rule the world overnight. Nature had control, from wildlife to vegetation. It took effort for humanity to become this overbearing populace that could stand up to anything. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes places both humanity and apes at the bottom of the power struggle. The film demonstrates humans and apes on the same playing field, and attempts to explore what it means to birth a civilization on top of the wreckage of another. It manages to work as both a post-apocalyptic and pre-civilization film.
It is exhilarating as well, with plenty of awe-inspiring moments and acting that is as self-serious as you can get. Action scenes are well-paced and never feel like they are hindering the story. In fact, most action scenes tell a story while also being visually stunning. So many scenes carry weight to them because of how well they are shot, and the accompanying epic score. Production in general is incredible for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and it never feels like anything is in the film without a purpose. Which is kind of amazing, because there’s a lot that the film is trying to convey. And a lot of it is without actual words.
There’s dialogue happening, but it is in the form of grunts and sign language, all translated into English subtitles. The opening scenes are completely centered on the apes and have no trace of humanity or words really, setting the film up to be a movie about the apes, and not about humanity’s inevitable resistance. As viewers we are rooting for the apes, but can see the cracks in their armor, and know that the humans could topple them. But that would only occur if all humans were complete savages and all apes were complete monsters. Fortunately, Caesar and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) are an ape and a human, respectively, who can empathize with each other. Both parties simply want to coexist.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has commanding performances from Serkis, Clarke, and Gary Oldman (who plays it a lot more over-the-top than the others), but the reason the film works so well is because it does not paint things black and white. We root for the apes, but not every ape is good. Similarly, we root for the humans, but know that humans are capable of deceit and trickery. Science fiction has always been grounded in this idea of progress, and what progress results in. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes shows us what progress means in a world that is attempting to restart.