This week's top film is one of this summer's biggest triumphs - "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes". A sequel to Rupert Wyatt's unexpected gem of 2011, this is a film that certainly had a lot to live up to. With a new director at the helm (Matt Reeves), the challenge was to repeat the thought-provoking mainstream entertainment of the predecessor. After seeing the end product, I can safely say that it achieves its goal, as this film is nothing short of a work of art.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" opens with a prologue that is a stunning example of world-building. In an extended scene that recalls "The Lion King", our protagonist Caesar ushers in his newly born son into the world. It's set in a future world where scientific experiments have lead to the evolution of apes, while decimating the human race. Under the leadership of Caesar, these apes have settled into their own civilization, creating a close-knit community in the woods. They are completely separated from the few remaining humans, until one day a group of explorers discover their enclave. The meeting stirs up old resentments from both sides and much to the disappointment of Caesar, it seems like war is inevitable.
This war is the film's raison d'être. The first film was the origin story, laying the foundation for the characters and their conflicts. Now it's time to see these intelligent, powerful apes do battle with the weakened human race. Yet despite this inevitable destination, the film takes its time to get there. The audience may have come for the action, but Reeves is intent on giving us something more.
One thing that Wyatt did very well in "Rise", was to instill our empathy with the apes. It's something that Reeves latches on to quite early here and expands on tremendously throughout the narrative. The aforementioned intro is striking in its ability to show the beautiful grace and "humanity" of these evolved apes. The image of various friends/relatives caressing a mother (Caesar's wife Cornelia) as she nurtures her baby stands out in particular. The saying "it takes a village to raise a child", is one that this community clearly holds dear.
There are many striking images throughout this film, as Reeves expresses a stunning directorial vision. From start to finish I marveled at the impeccable visual storytelling on display. There's no doubt that this installment is a stronger feat of directing.
Reeves' keen eye greatly enhances the script too. With the predictability of action-oriented summer movies, one of the greatest challenges is trying to stand out amongst all the calculated studio product. Indeed, the basic concepts of this film have already been explored just from this summer alone! In "Godzilla" we saw another cautionary tale about man's effect on nature and "X-Men: Days of Future Past" delved into the apocalyptic "us vs them" scenario quite well. In this film, we get all of that with even more memorable images that are linked with deeper themes. No other summer blockbuster has conveyed the range of themes (compassion, family, loyalty) here with as much clarity and purpose.
From the fascinating interactions between man and ape (in addition to dissenting factions within these groups) to the terrifying pandemonium of the climax, the film elicits strong feelings of human shame. This may be a work of fiction, but just a glance at various high-profile documentaries like "Project Nim" and "Blackfish" will show that there's something fundamentally wrong about the way we treat animals. Those same sentiments are conveyed beautifully here, through the superb motion-capture performances of these complex ape characters. The humans are fine, but Caesar (Andy Serkis), Koba (Toby Kebbell) and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) are the real stars.
In "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes", Matt Reeves has created a film that improbably improves on the original in many ways. The directing, editing, visuals and acting continue to be of the highest calibre. The initial stages may feel overly solemn for a film centered around talking apes, but once it hits its stride, you'll find a film that is rich in thought and appealing aesthetics.