You’d never expect to be emotionally engrossed by a film about computer-generated apes, which is why Dawn of the Planet of the Apes genuinely surprises you. Because it gets you invested in these characters early on and keeps them sympathetic throughout the picture, you unwittingly become wrapped up in their story. As a result, there are times when you’re shocked to realize that you’re rooting more for the apes than for the movie’s humans.
Set 10 years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this film picks up in a world where disease wiped out most the Earth’s population. This same virus turned primates like Caesar (Andy Serkis) into intelligent creatures who rebelled against mankind before disappearing into the forest near San Francisco. Now Caesar’s clan lives there quietly, while the city’s people struggle to survive. Once the humans realize that their only hope for rebuilding society requires natural resources on Caesar’s land, they ask for his help, but can he trust them?
Right from his opening shots, director Matt Reeves establishes that you’re supposed to side with the apes in his movie. Since he sets his camera low to the ground, you actually feel like you’re following them, as you observe them hunting and interacting. Additionally, writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver lay groundwork during these scenes to develop the apes as a peaceful society before you even see humans. So when people do arrive, you can’t help questioning their motives and worrying that they’ll set off war.
The film’s most fascinating insight into ape culture comes when you watch them communicate through sign language. It’s interesting is how much more they convey emotionally through nonverbal communication. Also it’s intriguing that they act civilized while signing, but once the apes spend time communicating verbally to men, they act more savagely. An issue with the way their lines are written though is that they lack consistency. What’s confusing is that sometimes the apes speak eloquently, while others they struggle to make basic statements.
From a visual effects standpoint, Caesar and his kin are extremely convincing. On top of another tremendous performance by actor Andy Serkis which makes Caesar three-dimensional, the apes are rendered with vivid detail and texture. Characters designs aren’t the only things that pop though, since environmental effects are great too. When you watch the film in 3D you can almost feel the rain and when something is engulfed in flames, you can practically smell burning. These strong technical efforts play nicely with the fully realized ape culture to really suck you into the movie.
Although Dawn of the Planet of the Apes succeeds with ape character development, one of its shortcomings is that its humans are one-dimensional. Unfortunately the people portrayed by Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, and Kirk Acevedo lack any depth to color their scenes with the apes, so their parts of the film drag. Another issue with the picture is that its plot is very predictable. You know right away that humans and apes are headed to war with few surprises along the way. Issues are telegraphed and conflicts feel forced out of narrative necessity rather than coming from natural disagreement between warring factions.
The plot may be predictable and the humans don’t offer a lot, but that doesn’t drag Dawn of the Planet of the Apes down too much. There’s enough going on with the apes to keep your attention through any small difficult patches. By the time the movie’s end credits roll, you won’t believe that you just spent 130 minutes absorbed by apes.