TMN Movie Review: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

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A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth's dominant species.
3.5

Rating: PG-13
Length: 130 minutes
Release Date: July 11, 2014
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Genre: Action / Drama / Sci-Fi

When "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" came out in 2011, nobody really knew what to expect. After director Tim Burton's attempted reboot of the famous franchise fizzled a decade earlier, critics questioned whether the series could be redone for a modern audience or if it was better left alone as a campy cult classic set of movies. It turned out the film was very good and exceeded even the loftiest expectations, taking the franchise in a new direction while still paying homage to the original premise. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" tops its predecessor and shows that this simian tale still has lots of life left in it.

In the last film, Caesar (Andy Serkis) had led a successful revolt of fellow chimps, apes and gorillas into the wild, escaping from captivity to live freely. This film starts 15 years later, with their evolution in full bloom. They now have a complicated language full of gestures and words, and some, including Caesar, even speak English. They have a peaceful society with a full-blown government that spends copious amounts of time debating whether they are the dominant species on the planet. Normally humans would be the dominant species, but a virus that originated with apes has decimated the population, and now packs of humans take up arms and scavenge for scarce resources to eke out a living.

Some of those humans, such as Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his wife Ellie (Keri Russell) realize that the virus was a direct result of human tampering with the apes' DNA, so they do not blame the simians for what has happened. This is despite the fact that Malcom's first wife and family died as a result of the virus, called ALZ-113. Others, such as Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) have lost everything and want to eradicate the apes in retribution for the virus. The tension is high as all three factions try to hammer out a truce to keep the peace. Unfortunately, the peace only lasts for so long, as emotions and bloodlust take over, causing an all-out battle between humans and simians. This would not be much of a battle, except that the altered ape DNA has allowed them the brain power and dexterity to take up arms and learn how to use them properly. The question looms whether the apes succeed in superseding humans as the dominant species or whether mankind finds a way to survive yet again.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" did a lot of world building, introducing audiences to the origin story of Caesar, who plays a huge role in this film. He not only got all the apes to work together to escape their prison, but he has been at the forefront of their evolution. He is also at the center of the endless ape debates regarding their place in the world. Unlike some of the others, he has an affinity for humans, considering his lifelong relationship with Will Rodman (James Franco) in the first film. Though Franco only appears in a posthumous video here, his impact is still felt since his emotional bond with Caesar lies heavy on the chimp's mind. Writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback really bring this point across well without overdoing it. In fact, they do an excellent job conveying the myriad of emotions stirring in the wake of the inevitable war to come.

It is not only the superb writing and plotting that keeps the movie humming. The acting is fantastic and not just from the human characters. Most of the apes and chimps are played by actual humans using motion capture technology. Serkis has become something of a worldwide authority on motion capture after playing Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Here, he fleshes out the Caesar character even more, giving him more layers than he had in the first film. The human audience members are equally likely to root for Caesar as they are for their fellow humans, which is a testament to Serkis' performance. If the Academy that votes for and awards the Oscars were to ever allow motion capture performances to get a nomination, Serkis would certainly deserve one.

A third installment into the franchise has already been scheduled for 2016, so there is more humans versus ape action coming. If that film has even a fraction of the heart, action and wonderful writing that this one does, it is sure to surpass the original series as the best of the franchise. Until then, "Dawn of the Planet" of the apes continues to satisfy as a fantastic drama filled with more action and tension than just about any other film of 2014's summer.