Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Is a Heartbreaking, Heavenly Film

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Is a Heartbreaking, Heavenly Film

Director Matt Reeves was not messing around when he made Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. He wipes out most of the human race before the title card, then unfurls a powerful story of two opposing societies destined for war despite having every possible opportunity at peace. It’s bleak. It’s bold. It’s bloody fantastic.

Next week, Fox will release Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, a new film set in the legendary franchise that began in 1968 with Planet of the Apes. Kingdom is a sequel to a trilogy of films that began in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which we revisited last week. Next week, we’ll review the third film, War for the Planet of the Apes, as well as the new one. And now, we’ll continue our look back with Dawn.

Released three years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn takes the series to a whole new level thematically and dramatically. It’s more complex narratively, more interesting subtextually, and eerily poignant for a post-apocalyptic film. That’s all enhanced by stunning VFX work as well as a fantastic human cast too, with Gary Oldman and Keri Russell being two of the biggest names. It picks up the story during the credits of Rise, as we see how the deadly to humans, but helpful to apes substance ALZ-113 spread across the globe. News footage including that of former presidents reveals a shocking look at how humanity crumbled due to self-inflicted disease, killing the large majority of the population in the process.

Toby Kebbell as Koba.

Or, at least, that’s what the apes think. Ten years after the events of the first film, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his ape friends have created an entire world for themselves in the woods outside of San Francisco. Caesar has a wife, a son, a newborn on the way, and we learn that the apes haven’t seen or heard from a human in two years. What we learn though is that in that time, immune humans in the area have all congregated together in the city. With resources drying up, they formulate a plan to restore power, and maybe society, by tapping into an abandoned dam. A trip to the dam leads to a chance run-in between humans and the ape society, an event that starts with shock, morphs to fear, and then evolves into opportunity.

Jason Clarke plays Malcolm, a respected member of the human group who leads the investigation into restoring the dam. After meeting the apes, he’s one of the few who doesn’t immediately view them as enemies. Instead, he sees opportunity. Malcolm fights the leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) to be given a chance to broker peace with the apes which, eventually, loosely, works out.

Once humans learn the apes are thriving, and vice versa, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gets drenched in a unique, uneasy tension. As the audience, we want everyone to work it all out. The problem is there’s so little trust between the species, and with both thinking almost solely of themselves, the bulk of the film is filled with painful frustration as we watch all the near misses for a peace that would’ve changed the course of history.

Jason Clarke as Malcolm.

Of course, we also know that eventually Earth becomes Planet of the Apes—so this was never going to work out. But Reeves tells such a fantastic parallel story that he proposes maybe that wasn’t always inevitable. Dawn shows how the choices of one or two bad apples set in motion a domino effect leading to that new world. It truly is a Dawn.

Tension and desire drive a movie that is relatively devoid of big action for large chunks of its run time. Things escalate by the end, and there are moments scattered throughout, but most of the movie is fueled by our fascination with how these two societies, so similar and yet so different, just can’t get along.

There’s so much to call out as incredible in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The performances of the actors playing the apes, for one. Toby Kebbell as the evil Koba is stunning. Nick Thurston as Caesar’s conflicted son Blue Eyes is remarkable. Judy Greer as Caesar’s wife Cornelia is heartbreaking. And them set against this great human cast, using the fantastic script, directed beautifully, is a sight to behold.

What could have been.

In terms of a rewatch, our biggest takeaways from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes were that it’s somehow even more magnificent than its already excellent predecessor. Mainly though, it’s that the story of these apes is so captivating on its own, you almost forget that as the apes were living their lives, humanity was also trying to survive. Humans didn’t know super smart apes were thriving just outside the city. All they knew was a virus dubbed “the Simian Flu” by the media wiped out almost everyone on Earth. The few who survived struggled mightily to restart society and, in this film, get pretty close to doing so. But much as human greed facilitated the deadly virus, our same bad characteristics make it impossible for there to be peace on both sides. As a result, as we’ll see in the next few films, human society was doomed right then and there, thanks to the events here.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is now streaming on Hulu and Disney+. Next up: War for the Planet of the Apes.

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