Don’t get me wrong. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an incredibly skilled piece of work. The latest installment in the series just underwhelmed me. Maybe that’s because the tone of the reviews suggested it was the summer’s best movie, and I didn’t find that to be the case. Maybe it’s because after seeing Snowpiercer, every other movie about the apocalypse pales in comparison. Or maybe I just have this mental block when it comes to motion-capture performances — I don’t seem to get invested in film characters created by this method, whereas I do get invested in characters in good animated movies. Whatever it was, I found this movie overrated, even as I admired it.
The film takes place roughly 10 years after the events of its 2011 predecessor Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar (Andy Serkis) now leads a community of super-intelligent great apes in the woods outside what was San Francisco. The same virus that helped create the apes proceeded to wipe out most of Earth’s people, so Caesar and his hundreds of followers think the humans have gone extinct. That idea is proven wrong when they run across a small party of humans, sent out from a colony of survivors in the city to restore power from a hydroelectric dam.
This movie is essentially a Western, as Caesar and a determined human scientist (Jason Clarke, doing yeoman work) try to forge a peace between apes and humans that’s made fragile by cultural misunderstandings and troublemakers on both sides. The apes have learned to ride horses, making the parallel clearer. The awfully clever part is, the two species keep switching off the roles of cowboys and Indians, and we’re never entirely sure which are the oppressors and which the oppressed here. Matt Reeves, the talented director of Cloverfield and Let Me In, has taken over the reins, and his economy and subtlety are good to have. His virtuosity doesn’t call attention to itself, but he brings a light touch to what could have been a heavy-handed allegory in less capable hands. He also executes a terrific sequence with the camera mounted on top of a tank as the humans blast the apes as they attack the city, until a rebel ape named Koba (Toby Kebbell) kills the tank’s operators and takes control of the vehicle.
It’s all more sophisticated on every level than Avatar, that other Hollywood blockbuster critiquing colonialism with motion-capped characters. Regardless, it all left me unmoved. Serkis is drawing Oscar buzz for his performance, but I didn’t even find Caesar to be the most expressive ape character here. (That would be Nick Thurston as Caesar’s adolescent son, who’s caught up in a power struggle.) The internecine power struggles among the humans and the apes are clumsily written, too. Still one of the better big-ticket summer movies, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes points toward a more intelligent direction for the series but doesn’t get it there.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Starring Andy Serkis and Jason Clarke. Directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver. Rated PG-13.