Caesar Reigns in ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (Movie Review)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes TNIf the year 2011 taught us nothing but the fact that good things can come from rebooting a beloved franchise, then I’d be alright to call it a day right then and there.  Never in my wildest dreams could I have ever conjured up the belief or the cohones that the quirky Planet of the Apes franchise could ever be resurrected after that feeble attempt by Tim Burton (I really wish they could have went through with the Adam Rifkin script) way back in the summer of 2001 before our economy took a crap and I have been broke ever since because of low interest rates.  However, I digress.  We are not here to discuss our nation’s economy because if the fictional ape character of Caesar was real, I have no doubts that it would thrive once again under his direction.  All hail Caesar, right?  Exactly!  That’s exactly the sentimentality I want you to have over the course of the next five minutes or so as I  birth into your mind a world dominated by apes, or at least on the cusp of that becoming so in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

So if you are good with math and you count 2001’s “re-imagining,” then that would make Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the eighth film in the franchise so to speak, but very much a sequel to the superior 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  I couldn’t say enough good things about the 2011 film here, but fret not.  That streak of praise continues here in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which I’ll lovingly refer to as DOTPOTA from here on out in this review.  So I guess the first thing we should point out here is that there’s a new sheriff in town (referring to the director helming the picture) as well as some new faces (referring to the cast) to the franchise so I guess we should start there before talking plot.

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Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) won the coveted position here as director and along with that all the attached strings that we’ll talk about in a little more detail down below.  The brilliant Andy Serkis has come back to reprise his performance capture role as Caesar and a handful of other apes.  Sadly, the talents of James Franco (with the exception of some props and a very quick flashback) and the beautiful Freida Pinto do not return for this sequel, but instead we welcome the fresh and familiar faces of Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee.  Now I don’t know about you, but those names make me happy even though we don’t get the Freida eye candy this time out.  I can sacrifice and live without.

So even though DOTPOTA opens up some ten years after the fateful and historic events of the first film where man and ape went their separate ways on the bridge and that pesky ALZ-113 virus Franco’s character in the first film cooked up has caused quite the global pandemic of sorts, I honestly feel like I did not miss a beat.  I welcomed Caesar and his extended family into my world again with arms wide open and instantly felt right at home with him as we went frolicking through the woods on a fast paced hunt for food.  Everything seems grand in their ape world.  It has been 2 summers since they seen sight of mankind.  Could the world’s homo sapien population truly be extinct?  Not so fast smart cat!  Something has to ignite this war and uprising of the apes.  Why not the presence and resurgence of mankind into the apes’ lives?  I couldn’t think of a better way to stir the pot could you?  Luckily for us there’s more than meets the eye.

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Over the past ten years (think back to the original franchise) the apes have kind of developed their own code, let’s call them for lack of a better term “laws.”  Ape shall not kill ape.  Apes are a family unlike the humans who have destroyed themselves with the virus some ten years ago.  It’s that very same virus that makes me feel so sorry for James Franco’s character back then.  Here you have this man whose sole goal in life was to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s to help cure his father and he ends up nearly wiping out the human race.  The irony there is so tragic and sad, don’t you think?   Now fast forward ten years and man is all but forgotten and the apes foolishly think they know it all.  It’s like that old Megadeth song, “I Thought I Knew it All.”  That’s what Caesar thinks too.  He embodies all the characteristics of an effective leader and everyone looks up to him, but will his compassion for the human race be his ultimate undoing?  Will he risk everything to save his ape family?  Will his own beliefs in apes first and laws come back to haunt him?  Rest assured, these questions and so much more are answered in DOTPOTA, but the film is SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT!  It’s bigger than just these questions and not just because we are talking about apes and their preconceived stature.

Make no doubt about it DOTPOTA is about the apes.  They are the main characters.  It feels weird saying this and it may take you some time to come to grips with this while checking this one out, but it’s true.  Did you ever see the day coming when you would be forced to sympathize and ultimately empathize with that of a motion captured character?  I knew this day was coming, but up until 2011 (outside of cartoons and Pixar films) I kind of lived in denial.  Then Caesar entered my life coupled with such memorable characters (yes I am saying memorable in regards to motion performance captured characters) as Maurice, Rocket and of course who can forget Koba?  However, the point I’m trying to get across here in this paragraph is the fact that DOTPOTA is also about the human connection, not only the bond between that of the apes and man, but that of their own respective families.  Caesar has a family now in this one and so does that of newcomer Jason Clarke and his onscreen human family.  They both have younger sons who are coming to grip with their respective roles and place in the world.  It’s quite an interesting character study to see a coming of age story from two distinct points of view regardless of race or species.  You picking up what I’m dropping here?

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Truth be told, I kind of hate reviewing movies like this that I love because I honestly feel that I could throw every big, educated word at you and ramble on and on, but nothing I feel I will say will ever equate to how powerful this feature is and nor do I feel I can do it justice with just my mere mortal vocabulary.  It’s engaging, rampaging, heartwarming, tear jerking and most importantly to some, very nostalgic to the hardcore Apes fans.  You’re going to notice some very familiar musical cues in this one, Apes fans.  But that’s only the half of it.  When you think how far we have come since the quirkiness of the classic Escape From Planet of the Apes and the way the filmmakers are able to interject that vibe while making things so lifelike in the way they register and hit home with you, it’s simply amazing in my opinion.  I truly never thought I could ever feel this way about a Planet of the Apes reboot, but gosh darn it, there is a God.  No, his name is not Caesar.  LOL.  But rest assured there are movie gods that still exist that are able to take old franchises like this, resurrect them and make them into something awe-inspiring and powerful as they turn things completely over.  And wow!  I have not even talked about the performances, exciting action sequences or even Matt Reeves yet!

So let’s talk about all of that here.  I think it goes without saying that Andy Serkis is perfect in all his roles throughout DOTPOTA, but what of Jason Clarke and gang?  Ah.  Come on!  Did you really think Jason Clarke was going to let us down?  Hell no!  The whole cast of human actors hit a home run here.  You can pretty much count on Gary Oldman to be spot on in all he does, but I was pleasantly surprised how well Keri and Kodi fit in and interact with the performance capture artists such as Andy the rest of his very small entourage.  Things have come a long way since the days of the stiff awkward performances of Ewan and Natalie in the Star Wars prequels, but I digress.  Perhaps that was more George Lucas’ writing and direction more than anything else, huh?  LOL.  And yes, the action sequences in here were quite bombad and at times something really to write home about.  It was interesting to hear Matt Reeves talk about it and how the performance capture artists were all on ladders when onscreen they were really on horses.  Oh I mentioned I was going to chat a little bit about Matt Reeves, didn’t I?  Did I forget to mention I saw this movie two weeks ago with Matt Reeves, Gary Oldman and Andy Serkis in attendance with a complete Q&A afterwards?  Oops.  I guess I forgot to mention that.  Now might be a good time to segue into a paragraph about Matt Reeves then, huh?

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I’ve been a fan of Matt Reeves for some time now, but after meeting the guy (oh yeah I forgot to tell you all that we all got the chance to meet the three men and have them sign a poster for us) I have a newfound respect for him.  He’s just so kind, humble and remarkably handles stress well.  My jaw hit the ground when he recounted the tale of how he got the job.  You can watch it for yourself in the below in the embedded video courtesy of the Alamo Drafthouse here in Austin, TX where they did the Q&A, but I just got to type this one story out.  He said he went into the meeting for the gig and pitched his idea of how he thought the sequel should be even though there was already a written script.  They loved what he had to say and told him he had the job.  Thinking that was way too easy, Matt said great, but what’s the catch?  LOL.  The catch was the fact that he had to be ready to shoot in 2.5 months.  Holy crap!  Did you see the film I’m writing about here?  It’s every bit as good as an Empire Strikes Back and employs so much CG and stunts and you’re saying I only have two and a half months to finalize the script and get everything ready to shoot?  Did I hear you right?  I’ll say it again.  Holy crap!  If there’s anybody that should be running this country it should be Matt Reeves with John Oliver as his righthand man.  I’m kidding.  LOL.  But wow!  How that man can handle that stress and still have a full head of brown hair is beyond me. I bow down to Matt Reeves and look forward with the utmost of anticipation of what he will deliver next in July 2016 when the third yet to be titled  Apes sequel hits the big screen.

So yes…I was bold and egotistical when I made that Empire Strikes Back comparison up above, but I meant it.  I really did.  In my opinion, the film had three main mission objectives to conquer and overcome.  It had to overcome the doomed and dreaded sophomore slump.  Check.  It did!  It even managed to improve upon the first film and build upon a mythology that I’m excited to see more of in the third one.  It had to keep you riveted and tension filled for nearly two hours.  Check!  It easily did that with the battle sequences and standoffs alone.  It also had to have a profound story and hit home with a deep-seated statement about our human civilization despite the fact that we are watching apes onscreen.  Somebody give me the check please?  These three objectives were squashed by Matt Reeeves, all the writers who worked on this and by the brilliant performances of the cast coupled with the hardworking supporting crew they had here.  I don’t care whether they were human or apes, Matt and his team made me so attached to all the characters here, I did not want to see any of them die.  When you can form an emotional bond with an onscreen “animated” orangutan, then you know you have some special here.  My hat is off to you, Matt and Andy.  You guys produced something I’ll be talking about the rest of the year.  And I’m also happy to report that I have seen it twice and my level of interest and tension was just as high as it was my first screening, so much so that I can’t wait to see it again and again.  If you see one movie this summer, see DOTPOTA.  And if you see two, then check out Guardians of the Galaxy.  I have high hopes for that one in a weird sort of way.  Enjoy your weekend at the movies and make sure you practice safe swinging from branch to branch with all your furry ape friends.  War is coming!  Whose side are you on?  Hail Caesar!

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Movie Poster


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