Ten years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the human population has been decimated by what is now being called the Simian Flu. Caesar and his fellow apes live in a peaceful society, far removed from the remains of humanity, but when a group of human survivors seeks their help, their fragile peace is threatened as loyalties are pushed to their limits. Caesar must fight to stop an all-out war that could destroy everything he has built – and everyone he loves.
Largely ignoring the unfortunate 2001 Tim Burton adaptation, Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes both lead up to the events of the Academy Award nominated 1968 Planet of the Apes film, based on the book French writer Pierre Boulle. Dawn is essentially a prequel-sequel, much like Attack of the Clones was to the original Star Wars trilogy. However, unlike the Star Wars prequels, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes lives up to its promise as a fantastic continuation of a fantastic series.
Director Matt Reeves hoped that “audiences [might] say, “Wait a minute. There weren’t real live apes in the movie at all?”… If you believe these apes are real and they are emoting, then your involvement just becomes deeper and deeper.” Anyone who has seen films such as Toy Story and Wall-E – or even Bambi or The Lion King – will know how emotionally connected you can become to an animated or animal character, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes goes beyond that. The visual effects – in combination with the actors’ performances – are phenomenal. I found myself not so much suspending belief as believing completely in the existence of these intelligent apes. Caesar, is without question, the most compelling character I have seen on screen this year, due to Andy Serkis’s unsurpassable performance and Weta Digital’s outstanding work in bringing his performance to life.
There are political elements woven into the film that, in the hands of lesser storytellers, could entrench the plot in didactic “message giving”. James Cameron’s Avatar is a perfect example of a film where the agenda (and visual effects) took precedence over good plot and the creation of emotional connections, and I was initially nervous that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes would go down that same path. Luckily, it only takes a few minutes for the film to assert that it is so much more than this. This not just a story about survival and apocalypse, for all the focus on those elements.
At its heart, this is a film about family and connection, and the devastation that occurs when that connection is forgotten or betrayed. These themes are impossible to carry off without believable, relatable characters, which may seem a big ask in a film that hinges on the performance of digitally rendered “apes”. However, in its characters lies its triumph, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes surpasses all expectations to deliver what could be the sci-fi film of the year.