The predator and the prey are one and the same.
It all started with the eyes.
Looking deeply into them, we see the angry, vicious, relentless energy behind them, as hungry as an animal and as wild as a beast. A somewhat appropriate description, because these are the eyes of the ape Caesar (Andy Serkis), the intelligent primate we’ve come to know from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. As we continue looking at his eyes, his steady, violent stare, we see his army of followers climbing on branches behind him.
He drops his hand, motioning them to attack.
After we see this powerful, expressive opening sequence, we are taken through this epic journey that is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a compelling and exciting survivalist-drama that looks at the human-primate condition from two different perspectives, as if they are two sides to one coin. The leader of the apes is Caesar, who now has his own family in his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and his son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). The leader of a band of human survivors is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who also has his own family in Ellie (Keri Russel) and his teenage son Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Both of these band’s stories take place years after the virus attack that destroyed the most of humanity years ago, which we got a glimpse at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Both sides have lost loved ones in the wake of the disaster. Both sides do not trust the other. Yet, as Caesar and Malcolm share close encounters with each other, they slowly begin to understand and see that their races are not so different from each other. As the human-primate war rages on, Caesar and Malcolm must combine their efforts to protect each of their families, and seek out peace between their established societies.
Remembering fondly of how I enjoyed seeing the ape empire’s beginnings and relishing in the context of human-animal abuse in Rise, I went into this movie knowing it had a strong foundation to build it’s story on, hoping that they wouldn’t fail. Not only did director Matt Reeves not fail in telling his story of Dawn; he expanded further upon the Planet of the Apes story in detail, action and commentary than I estimated him to. His film ended up being better than Rupert Wyatt’s film in spades.
Firstly, let’s talk about the similarities between each film. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the writing/producing team behind Rise, returns yet again to contribute to Dawn’s story and to the production of this film. In many ways, I argue that both are better in this film than they were in the last one.. The plot of the first movie was an involving, interesting and emotionally compelling sci-fi thriller, a story that showed the worst of humanity and their cruel mistreatment of animals. Here, this movie has a more of a political facet in its structure, a drama that shows each race as a mirror of the other. It shows a civil anarchy blooming in the heart of each race.
The characters are compelling and have genuine interactions with each other, from Caesar confronting Malcolm on staying away from their home, to intimate scenes when Alex interacts with Caesar’s new baby boy. What I liked so much, however, is director Matt Reeves details not only to these emotions, but the visual display of the story in itself.
Being no stranger to visual effects or emotions with a filmography including Cloverfield and Let Me In, Reeves is skillful in making an exciting action movie while at the same time making a involving apocalyptic thriller. It surprising with this film that the basis of the film wasn’t grounded in action or ridiculous CGI stunts, but rather, in small, intimate moments of conversation and ape-sign-language that characters share with each other. It’s nice to see a big-budget blockbuster movie reaching for more intimate, personal situations, rather than the billion-dollar-sized explosions of garbage you’d see from the Transformers movies.
I do have a criticism in the movie in that the human characters were mostly boring. I have a rule of thumb that if I can’t remember a character’s name by the end of the movie, then that character is mostly forgettable. By the end of the film, I only remembered Malcolm’s name. I called Keri Russel’s character “Keri Russel” in the film while I labeled Smit-McPhee as a Jay Baruchel rip-off. I even looked at Gary Oldman’s character in the film and smirked in my head, “Well, hello there, Commissioner Gordon! Did you end up surviving the nuclear fallout in The Dark Knight Rises?”
What I realize though is that the humans aren’t supposed to be the main anchor of the film. The apes are center focus here, and this is really their story, figuring out their emotions, finding their identities, and realizing their faults as they look at human beings and see themselves deep within.
I think I realized this was a masterful film when it approached its final minutes, when we once again returned to the eyes of Caesar that we saw at the beginning of the movie. Only this time, they weren’t as aggressive as they were before. These were not the eyes of the predator, the hunter eagerly waiting to hunt his prey. No, these eyes were solemn and sad, as if they were looking at a bleak, grim future, one they were powerless to stop.