In an August 2011 issue of NUVO I said, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the best summer movie of 2011 and, hoo boy, that's a sentence I didn't expect to write."
So, is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the best summer movie of 2014? I have high hopes for Guardians of the Galaxy, which comes out August 1, so I'm not going to make a statement that bold, but it's certainly a worthy successor to the "where did THAT come from?" 2011 hit. Incidentally, doesn't Dawn of the ... sound like it should come before Rise of the ... ? Not a big deal, I know, but doesn't it?
Where Rise was an origin story, Dawn is a war movie/Shakespearean tragedy with a nod toward westerns. If you're looking for social themes, it addresses the betrayals of Native Americans with all the subtlety and finesse of the original 1968 Ape movie. And while representing the terrible treatment of Native Americans, it relegates women to the background, giving only two females notable screen time: a nurse and a new mother. Maybe it will deal with the problem in Gender Inequities of the Planet of the Apes.
The set-up: 10 years after the first film, most of humanity has been wiped out by the Simian Virus. Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis, at his best) and his followers live in Muir Woods outside of San Francisco. Their use of spoken English is growing, but most communication is done through sign language. Caesar and Cornelia (Judy Greer, wasted in the role) are parents to rebellious young adult Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), with another child due any day. Koba (Toby Kebbell), scarred from being used for experiments in a human lab, is a rabble-rouser who bows to Caesar, at least during the early part of the movie.
A few hundred virus-resistant humans live in the ruins of San Francisco. The group is led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a reasonable fellow, and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the human equivalent of Koba. Desperate for electric power, they send a contingent toward a dam near Muir Woods. The expedition is made up of widower Malcolm, his teenaged son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), nurse Ellie (Keri Russell) and Carver (Kirk Acevedo), because no expedition is complete without a twitchy extremist nut-job.
Apes and humans meet again and it does not go well. There are misunderstandings, tragedies, truces, betrayals and battles galore. Interspersed are touching moments (watch Gary Oldman as his character looks at photos of his kids for the first time in years) and dark humor (check out Koba's Stepin Fetchit routine in front of a couple of not-very-bright guards.
The look of the Ape colony is rich, dark and interesting. Michael Giacchino's score serves the franchise well – he gave me chills in a key scene where his music evoked Jerry Goldsmith's score for the 1968 original movie.
To be sure, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has its problems, but its triumphs are many, from its exciting pacing and strong sense of place to its charismatic turn by Andy Serkis, whose characterization at times reminded me of Abraham Lincoln. There's a depressing undercurrent to the proceedings – it's a Planet of the Apes movie, for Pete's sake. But for now, at this point in the Ape time line, there is cause for hope. And for celebration – the next film in the series is in the works.