The eyes on which Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens and closes dig into you. They get wearier as time goes on, but there’s a constant hardness to them, a strength and power that grabs you long before you start noticing that they don’t quite look normal. That’s because it’s not any human staring right into the faces of the audience, it’s Caesar (Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee. After research on Caesar led to the outbreak of what humankind dubbed the “simian flu” at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a decade passed, only one in every 500 people survived the epidemic, and humanity struggles to rebuild, or survive at all. But Dawn of the Planet of the Apes isn’t about them, not necessarily. Above all it’s about Caesar, and the struggles of founding an egalitarian society when so many of its inhabitants have suffered.
That idea runs both ways, though, and this is the basis of Matt Reeves’ spectacular sequel, an unseasonably dark affair that asks audiences to frequently question its own points of empathy as human and ape alike race violently toward a possible end of days. Where the apes have taken to the forests and founded a functioning work-based society unto themselves, the less physiologically prepared humans are still trying to rebuild power grids and find protected shelter. Caesar rules over his people not as a king, but as a benevolent sage, the ape who set his species free and allowed them to live in peace and prosperity.
But on both sides, ignorance festers. Koba (Toby Kebbell) was a laboratory animal before the outbreak, and remembers the cruelty of humans every time he awakens. And the few humans left, such as the pacifistic Malcolm (Jason Clarke) or the weathered leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), have to live every day remembering all those they’ve lost, and that they aren’t far from being next should the apes ever find reason to attack. All it takes is one misplaced gunshot for this equilibrium to be disturbed for good, and this is where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes emerges as a masterful piece of popcorn filmmaking. What the movie promises is a violent showdown between human and ape. What’s impossible to anticipate is how little you’ll want to see it happen by the time it commences.
For the film’s first 15 minutes, Dawn doesn’t even offer a single human character. The true story is Caesar’s struggles to lead his family to a better world, using the humans as a cautionary tale and struggling to be better than them in a time of violence and misguided terror. At one point the wise ape Maurice (Karin Konoval) notes how “fear makes people follow,” and it’s an idea that Dawn runs with on both sides of the conflict. The humans know they can’t overcome the apes in terms of force, the apes that humankind is capable of monstrous things for the sake of protecting itself. The key is that Dawn has few villains; its one true force of evil emerges a good while into the film as the ultimate victim of intolerance, and its other major players are simply wanderers attempting to live as well as possible in a decimated world.
It’s heady stuff for a movie that also concerns a shot of an ape riding a horse out of a wall of fire while wielding a machine gun, but Reeves wisely keeps the focus on the film’s emotional center, rather than the action. The big setpieces, particularly a late-game showdown at the human stronghold in San Francisco, are all built from moments between Caesar and Koba, Caesar and his son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), between Malcolm and his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Malcolm and his wife Ellie (Keri Russell) try and make peace with the apes, but it’s clear that the tensions on both sides are at a tipping point. Nobody wants war, but everybody’s most innocuous actions drive the world closer. If the film ever falters, it’s only in one or two moments where the motivations seem to go into fast forward to drive the story, when the film so wonderfully shades these in throughout.
The film is remarkably nuanced, which isn’t to say that the film’s battles aren’t thrilling; they absolutely are. And the animation is breathtaking. Caesar no longer feels like a remarkable CGI creation, but rather a breathing part of a seamlessly integrated post-apocalyptic society. Serkis’ work as the first true motion capture artist will always go underappreciated no matter how much acclaim he finds, and here he delivers a truly great performance, one that foregrounds Caesar’s inner turmoil over the position in which he’s found himself even as his troubles pile up. From the subtle differences in walk to the mannerisms, every ape is a distinctively individual creature, and Reeves finds as many ways to play them off one another as he does any human character.
Dawn is also just a terrific apocalypse story, a more measured vision of what the end might look like. At one point the humans are able to restore enough power to turn on an abandoned gas station in the forest, and as The Band’s “The Weight” plays over the action, the true toll of battle rings high. In an era where more and more popcorn movies tear civilization apart, Dawn bypasses the destruction to tell the stories of the humans (and apes) who survived, and what the cost was to them. And even as its view of the world’s ability to save itself turns sour, Dawn is always about every creature’s drive to stay alive and protect its own, and how those well-meaning ideas can be perverted. This might be a movie concerning apes with machine guns, but it’s also one about the genesis of war, and the ripple effect that a single act can have upon the course of history.