An ape rides toward you on a horse through a wall of fire while waving an automatic rifle in the air, screaming in an indecipherable tongue. There are two appropriate reactions to this moment. Considering this is a scene in a movie, clutching your hands to your mouth and screaming bloody murder isn’t a viable option. A more practical course of action, if this is an average film with an average hold on your psyche, is to smirk at the audacious cheesiness of it all. But, in this particular scene, the only response that makes sense is perhaps the least expected: to stare in disbelief that someone made a gun-toting chimpanzee on a horse into a legitimately intimidating spectacle.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t carry the same shock value goodwill as its predecessor. Rise of the Planet of the Apes outperformed all its expectations, in quality and financial success, because it had low expectations. The expectations couldn’t have been higher for Dawn; a well-received first installment coupled with some awesome trailers raised the bar for the sequel. But even if we foresaw big things for Dawn, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a movie about monkeys with guns. It’s a premise with the potential to be as flimsy as snakes on a plane, and considering that there was already a movie (a classic, mind you) that made it work, it was hard to imagine lightning, you know, doing what it’s not supposed to, yada yada yada.
But the trick of Dawn is that you don’t notice the tricks. Somehow, some way, they convince you to process this movie as if the apes held just as much import as the humans. Part of it is the CGI meshing seamlessly with the real-life actors and locations, marking a huge landmark for the actors and the technicians involved with the motion capture magic behind the images. I’ll bet if you held up a picture of Caesar next to a picture of a real chimpanzee, you’d pick out the real one in an instant. But in this movie, there was never a moment that I even thought about whether or not Caesar was a real chimpanzee. This isn’t the first movie to use the technology, but Dawn may be the first to really harness it for the good of the story.
And what a story it is. Seeing Rise isn’t necessary to enjoy Dawn, but it may help you to feel more connected to Dawn’s main character. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is the chief chimp of a massive family of apes living in the woods outside San Francisco. They’ve built a good life for themselves. They live well off the available food in the woods. The older apes teach the younger apes sign language and an ethical code of sorts. But conflict comes in the form of a group of humans who have ventured out San Francisco trying to reach the nearby dam in order to bring electricity to the community they’ve forged from what remains of the city. This group is led by the compassionate Malcolm, played by Jason Clarke. Gary Oldman is the human community’s other leader back in San Francisco.
The trailer makes Oldman look like the villain, but Dawn is a smarter movie than that. The screenplay wisely skips over the theme that humans are their own (and the world’s) worst enemy; the original Planet of the Apes nailed that one. Instead, Dawn magnifies one of the original’s smaller themes: that corruption may be part and parcel of being a sentient being. The original explored this thought in the nuances of how the ape society’s government and religion are kept afloat through lies and false constructions of their history. Dawn centers this theme on the tenuous friendship between Caesar and another chimp, Koba (Toby Kebbell). Humans experimented on Koba, and he understandably has a chip on his chimp shoulder. But where you may expect this conflict to go is only the beginning of what ends up amounting to a tragedy.
It all ends with an explosive action scene. That isn’t a spoiler, since this is, after all, a Summer Blockbuster. But, like the other great SBs of the year so far (X-Men: Days of Future Past, How to Train Your Dragon 2, which are also, alas, sequels), the action is awesome not only because it looks cool, dude, but because it hinges on several key choices by smart characters we’ve come to love, choices with implications beyond their own onscreen stories. It’s these shades of moral quandaries that director Matt Reeves allows to color his CGI-heavy that help make Dawn arguably the best Summer Blockbuster of an increasingly long summer. And it’s the fact that Reeves has made a movie that allows me to put “moral quandaries” and “gun-toting chimpanzee” in the same review that elevates Dawn to one of the best movies of the year.
*I know apes and monkeys aren’t the same thing, but can we at least agree that we don’t differentiate between the two in everyday conversation?