Dawn of the Planet of the Apes review

Hey look! It’s dawn. Get it? Get it?

Okay, that was a lot better.

Despite the thrashing I gave Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I wound up seeing the sequel anyway. And for once a good trailer didn’t let me down.

I will not be spoiling this movie like I did its predecessor. For one, it just came out and more importantly I respect the deftly plotted and better written film that it is.

I said in my Rise review that the film wasn’t nearly well-written enough to support moral ambiguity. Well that’s changed here. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a tale of how limited resources, mistrust, and bad leadership between groups of survivors leads to ruinous war. It’s kind of like what Season 3 of The Walking Dead was going for but a lot better.

As hinted by the end of the previous film, the human-killing, smart-ape-making virus was spread around the world killing a large percentage of the popular. Ten years later we’re in a post-apocalyptic setting with the only human survivors being those who were genetically immune to the plague.

Caesar and his apes have flourished in the redwood forest outside of San Francisco. It’s been two years since their last contact with humans and Caesar wonders if they’re really all dead now. Speak of the devils, in the very next scene a group of human scouts makes contact with the apes. It’s tense first contact and that tension never goes away throughout the film.

The post-apocalypse is well rendered here despite being a really played out trope of modern cinema

Dawn makes us care about both humans and apes. Each side is given sympathetic viewpoints. There are clear good guys and bad apples on both sides and the conflict builds from first contact to full scale war plausibly and intelligently. The effects are pretty good and the performances of both ape and human actors are strong all around.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) form the film’s moral and emotional center. It works much better than the James Franco/Caesar relationship of the first film. I really didn’t want to see these guys fight. We know that they’ll inevitably end up killing each other and the apes will win in the end, but this time knowing how it all turns out works in the film’s favor. I wasn’t saying “get on with it already” like I was with the first installment. I was asking the question, “how can we avoid this terrible outcome?” The characters were asking the same thing.

Malcolm and Caesar work toward peace despite the inertia moving both sides toward war

I must hesitantly admit that having seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes first positively informed my experience with the sequel. I think I would have enjoyed it less without knowing all the backstory that Rise provides. That doesn’t redeem Rise from being a bore, but it does help to make this good movie a bit better with additional context. You can skip Rise and still get most of it I would imagine.

I don’t want to make the mistake I accused people of with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I don’t want to sing this movie’s praises just because I had lowered expectations going in. But as best as I can tell right now, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a pretty good movie that stands head-and-shoulders above most of its peers.

I went in expecting a fun, dumb action movie about apes fighting humans in the post apocalypse. What I got instead was much smarter, more character-driven and meaningful. Not bad for a summer popcorn movie.

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