Even more impressive than what Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has to say is how it goes about saying it. But what’s the most impressive of all is the fact that the movie is having its conversation in the first place. The fact that a science-fiction blockbuster plopped right in the heat of a Marvel Comics- and Michael Bay-stocked summer, composed of computer generated super-apes and post-apocalyptic San Franciscos, is speaking unabashedly about the futility of war, the corrosivity of guns, the corruptibility of man (and ape), and the intense fallibility of any singular ideology.
So astounding is it that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is delivering these principles that you’ll watch with the constant apprehension of a thematic undercut — that a movie like this couldn’t possibly carry forth with its desolation of the cells that constitute its summer picture brethren’s lifeblood. But the film stays true, never for a moment working to glorify its illustration of violence and hate. Dawn has a lot of ugly things to show us about its world and our own, and it pulls no punches in its presentation.
That’s not to say the movie is at all a chore to watch. Though its mission may be grim, Dawn drives us through a story about the impending war between hyper-intelligent simians and what’s left of mankind with an effervescent pulse and rich character. On one side, we have Caesar (mo-capped Andy Serkis) struggling to maintain a just and orderly society of his ape brethren in a swanky little set-up in the woods, hoping principally for communal isolation. On the other, Gary Oldman strives for the very same harmony with his slum of Simian Flu-resistant humans, eyeing the power plant on the apes’ turf as the source of a basic human necessity. Neither side wants war, and yet neither side is incapable of seeing the other as a threat to what it wants and needs.
We delight in our time in Ape Kingdom, finding a special fascination in watching Caesar play father to his eldest son Blue Eyes (who endures his own coming-of-age crisis of faith), in clever orangutan Maurice pioneering primate academia, and in battered chimp Koba fostering that Macchiavellian drive the old world knew too well. When the story slips into the inevitable nightmare that spawns between two parties, we have as vivid an idea of who’s fighting who as any adventure, sci-fi, or war film has given us in recent years.
So who do we root for? That’s just one of the many blockbuster conventions that Dawn not only avoids but abjectly annihilates. This isn’t a story about good versus bad, right versus wrong, or even man versus ape. This is a story where the act is the enemy. Where war, guns, and hate are the criminal, where trust and love are the unfortunate victim. Dawn is outstandingly impressive in its delivery of these ideas: in the construction of a race of post-human apes, its coloring of archetypal characters (like top billing human Jason Clarke and a simple but substantial Keri Russell) as fluorescent, and its unique understanding and adherence to its message’s gravity. But, to reiterate, what’s even more unique, outstanding, and impressive is the fact that a movie like this is saying these things at all.