Matt Reeves’ sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an involving story of power, fear and the struggle for peace. But the real star here – and indeed, the crowning glory of this year’s Hollywood blockbusters – is the breathtaking CGI.
A decade on from the events of the previous film, “Simian Flu” has killed off most of the human population. Caesar (Andy Serkis), meanwhile, is leader of a large ape community in the woods outside San Francisco.
He is still the recognizable chimp from the first film, but is growing a little grey and is now characterized now by staunch, solemn strength. He has two sons and is a beloved leader, flanked always by his most trusted followers: sage advisor Maurice, loyal soldier Rocket and dogged, hotheaded lieutenant Koba.
When a group of humans stray from their survivor base in San Francisco in search of a new power source, wounding a young ape in the process, Caesar finds himself in a tough position. Should he take a stand against the humans, as pressed by Koba, or should he establish an alliance?
In the end, the decision is made for him and, despite all the efforts of both Caesar and his human equivalent Malcolm (Jason Clarke), ape and man are soon at war.
This second installment was always going to be a tricky follow-up. Rise was, in its best moments, a magnificently executed tragedy, playing on the attempts of Caesar to reconcile his human and ape sides and in the end rejecting the human one altogether. As such, you can sense that it was hard for the writers of this sequel to tread new ground.
Wisely, the story here follows something much bigger than Caesar’s internal battle but, as it delves into the psychology that underpins war, it deftly brings us back to those same old conflicts from the first film.
Fittingly, parallels are drawn between Caesar and Malcolm to remind us of how much they hold in common. Malcolm’s wife is dead, Caesar’s is sick. Both are plagued by disobedient, war-mongering subordinates, and both are trying – against all hope – to keep the peace.
Some of the best moments here, indeed, are the small glimpses of peace. In one moment, Caesar’s baby son escapes from his clutches and clambers happily into the arms of Malcolm’s girlfriend, Ellie (Keri Russell). In another, Malcolm’s son reads to Maurice.
Later on, in the most heartbreaking moment of the film, Caesar finds an old video of him being taught sign language by his handler Will (James Franco). The sentimentality is never overplayed, but this is a film imbued with a sense of inevitable separation. We all know how this story ends, and that the peace between humans and apes can only ever be temporary.
Set against these moments are the wild, heart-in-mouth action scenes, rendered so amazingly well by the CGI that it is hard to believe you aren’t watching real apes riding real horses (firing real machine guns). There’s also brilliant homage paid to the original Planet of the Apes film through the soundtrack, which dispenses of Nolan-esque swells and blares in favour of stirring, elemental drums and glockenspiel.
Ultimately, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has to rely on old tropes to move its story along. But the really clever thing here is that, although we might have watched this story a hundred times in the past, we’ve never watched it played out by apes. And very realistic apes at that.
Released in UK cinemas on Thursday 17 July 2014.
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