Most of us could sit next to Andy Serkis in a movie theater and be none the wiser, though the actor receives top billing in what will likely be one of the highest-grossing films of 2014. Serkis, best known as a motion-capture actor since his role as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, has been steadily redefining the art of screen acting for more than a decade. Now that technology has caught up with him in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the results are kind of amazing. Serkis shares the billing block with plenty of recognizable talent, including Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, and Keri Russell, but there’s never any doubt about who’s leading the cast of this exciting, affecting, and remarkably intelligent sequel.
We first met Serkis’ Caesar three years ago in the excellent and sometimes harrowing reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Back then, Caesar was a lab chimp who unintentionally started a revolution. In Dawn, 10 years have passed and Caesar is now the leader of a sophisticated ape colony that resides in the Muir Woods near San Francisco.
Well, what’s left of San Francisco, at least. The experiments that made Caesar preternaturally intelligent also spawned the simian flu, a virus that has decimated the world’s population and left our furrier cousins in charge. But that ape apocalypse is of little concern to director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), who takes over the franchise from Rise director Rupert Wyatt. Reeves makes short work of the plague and the ensuing ape revolt, dismissing it all in a terse but effective opening credits sequence.
Reeves is far more interested in exploring the fledgling society Caesar is building. A considerable chunk of Dawn’s first act is primarily devoted to establishing this new world—its rules, customs and infrastructure. We get reacquainted with Caesar himself, along with his son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and his advisor, Koba (Toby Kebbell).
It takes a while for any human characters to show up, and once they do, it doesn’t go well. A scouting party from the nearby human colony is trying to make its way to a dam in hopes of restoring power to their crippled city. The humans, led by Malcolm (Clarke), are heavily armed, and most of Dawn revolves around the cataclysmic effects of a single gunshot.
What follows is a precisely measured balancing act of drama and spectacle. Caesar and Malcolm trust each other and do their best to work together, but Koba and his human equivalent, Dreyfus (Oldman), are anxious for war and constantly undermine all attempts at peaceful cohabitation. Blue Eyes is caught in between—he wants to share his father’s faith in humans, but fears that Koba, who was once subject to horrific abuse in the name of product testing, might be right.
There is eventually plenty of violent spectacle on display as Dawn makes good on the fiery promises set forth in its trailers and posters. The hand-to-hand combat sequences, which make full use both of Reeves’ eye for detail and his apes’ ability to climb and leap, are stunning. But Dawn is just as riveting when it hinges on the subtle power plays and moments of human drama that make those bombastic action scenes mean something.
Wait, did I say “human”? I meant “ape,” of course, because Caesar and his tribe are the ones who literally hold the reins in this fantastic sequel. Putting the spotlight on Caesar was a brave and risky move, but it pays wild dividends.
Most memorable characters are the products of collaboration, and never is that more true than with Caesar. It takes a village to render an ape, and in this case that village includes Serkis himself, of course, but also Reeves, screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, and an army of digital animators led by Dan Lemmon and four-time Oscar winner Joe Letteri. If you were troubled by the sometimes creepy disconnect between Serkis’ expressive eyes and the digital animation that surrounded them in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, know that those problems are gone now. The ultimate goal of visual effects is to make you forget you’re seeing them, and Dawn almost always succeeds. Caesar is such an interesting, complex, and sympathetic character, and he’s so artfully realized, that it raises questions about the line between acting and animation.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, then, isn’t just a great movie—it might be an important one as well, at least when it comes to the delineation between traditional and high-tech aspects of the craft of filmmaking. Hopefully it will also serve as a reminder that audiences shouldn’t have to choose between sophisticated, intelligent, emotionally provocative storytelling and seeing an ape shoot a pair of machine guns while riding a galloping horse in 3D.