The fragile peace between apes and men comes under fire as Earth’s resources dwindle.
2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was that rare thing – a reboot of a long dead franchise that not only managed to be commercially and critically successful but also forged its own new path rather than being hyped up fan service.
Rise is a unique and impressive film, particularly for its small scale and the power of its central human/simian relationship. And that makes it a tough act to follow. So new director Matt Reeves doesn’t really try, putting his own stamp on a much bigger story that sees the world edge closer to the future we saw in the original Apes.
This is also a film where focus more or less entirely shifts to the simian story. There are humans in the mix, and their struggle is a part of the main narrative but Caesar is the hero and most of the incidents are shaped and led by ape action.
There’s a lot going on, and Reeves handles it all really well – building a sense of dread from the beginning as the audience already knows things aren’t going to end well for man or ape. There are moments of subtlety and great beauty before the entire piece ignites for the chaos of the finale.
Technically, what has been achieved here is nigh on magical. It’s difficult to comprehend that every non-human character is entirely digital, every grasping hand, every strand of fur. Reeves pushes the crowd numbers of apes to greater heights here but the most staggering moments are when a single simian face fills the screen. The detail in texture is astounding, and the range of emotions really brings these characters alive.
The special effects are so ground-breaking that its easy to overlook the films flaws. For one thing, it’s an incredibly familiar tale – Caesar is the Godfather of apes and his general Koba couldn’t be more Brutus. They’re stock characters in an unusual setting and while the situation adds freshness there’s a pervading tired musk about most of the narrative.
It’s also very ape centric, so be prepared for a lot of subtitles for the many sign-language exchanges and some grunting ape-speak. Reeves does a remarkably job of getting us invested in these relationships but at the cost of the human characters. Despite his best efforts, Jason Clarke’s non-furry bloke makes no impression. His connection to Caesar is contrived rather than earned and his characterisation weak and passive. Shockingly, I almost missed James Franco.
Dawn is a marvellous technical achievement, there’s no doubt about that, and the spectacle of the finale is balanced out by several fine smaller scenes. Andy Serkis and the rest of the performance capture crew do brilliant work (with lots of help from Weta) and I’m certainly looking forward to where the franchise goes from here. But I also can’t help but be a bit bewildered by the rave reviews suggesting that this is the best film of the year. I genuinely preferred Rise.