Quite possibly the best “Planet of the Apes” film ever made. The 1968 Charlton Heston-starring original will always be the most iconic(they manage to squeeze in a “Blue Eyes” in-joke in “Dawn”—priceless!), and the 2011 reboot was pretty damn good(James Franco returns in a brief video segment). But “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” reaches for the Milky Way—and grabs a hell of a lot of it. Plus, I it admire the heck out of its patience! It honestly has something to say, and director Matt Reeves(“Cloverfield”)is savvy enough to let it take its time getting there. The film is pregnant with weariness, regret and dread. And if the Academy doesn’t wise up and bestow some kind of performance nomination on the peerless head of Andy Serkis, they may need to scrap the entire voting process. Gollum, King Kong, Caesar…this is a continuing string of Oscar-quality work from Serkis, masked under a veil of CGI. It shouldn’t matter…he’s fucking brilliant.
It’s been a decade since the laboratory created “simian flu” began a pandemic and wiped out most of the human race. The few immune human survivors are now struggling to eke out an existence with no electrical power. Meanwhile, our familiar talking chimpanzee, Caesar(Mr. Serkis), rules a large population of apes in the Muir Woods outside a desolate San Francisco. When a human expedition from the mostly wiped out city happens upon the forest ape population, a panicked man shoots and seriously injures one of Caesar’s flock. At first, Caesar casts them out—and shocks their systems with his ability to speak. But later, he attempts to trust them as the humans plead to be allowed to repair a hydroelectric dam(located in ape territory), to try to restore power to part of the city. Caesar befriends Malcolm(a sympathetic Jason Clarke)and Ellie(a mature and terrific Keri Russell), but the vicious ape Koba(a CGI Toby Kebbell)is constantly wary. And it’s only a matter of time, before increasing paranoia and aggression lead the apes and humans to the brink of an all-out war.
This is marvelous and smart science-fiction, possessing a heart and a brain. Kudos to Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s wise and emotional screenplay for getting the ape/human interplay just perfect. Yeah, I wish the trajectory of Kirk Acevado’s trigger-happy Carver wasn’t quite so obvious, but I understand the dilemma of compressed time. And Gary Oldman, as the human leader Dreyfus, is becoming an increasingly reliable genre staple, but the talented Judy Greer is mostly wasted as Caesar’s chimp wife Cornelia(more 1968 respect!). However, themes of racism, immigration, identification and cultural division are deftly handled…and almost subtle. Devastating weight is given to key scenes involving major and minor characters, and the pacing of these moments belies summer blockbuster limitations. I love its bravery. “Edge of Tomorrow” remains my favorite 2014 solstice release so far, but “Dawn” gets closer to its quality then all the rest. Upon a 2nd look, and more reflection, it could even grace my year-end 10 best tally. It’s that freaking good.