DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: 4 ½ STARS. “go bananas for these apes.”
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a different kind of blockbuster. It has all the elements of the usual summer fare— it’s a sequel, things blow up and, if that wasn’t enough, also features an ape on horseback —but it takes more risks than Optimus Prime could shake Michael Bay at. About half of it is done in ape sign language (with subtitles) and it’s not chock-a-block with action. Instead it takes time building characters and motivations so when the wild ape-on-human action begins it feels earned and it feels epic.
Set ten years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes saw Caesar (Andy Serkis) break free from a San Fransisco primate sanctuary and start an ape uprising, the middle-aged chimpanzee is the leader of a large population of genetically evolved apes. Most of humankind was wiped out by a pandemic of ALZ-113—a “simian flu” virus that speeds up the rebuilding of brain cells in apes but is deadly to humans—but when a small band of humans scout a water source near the ape camp a monkey wrench is thrown into the fragile peace between homo sapiens and simians is threatened. “Apes do not want war,” says Caesar, but a battle—gorilla warfare?—for control is inevitable.
To riff off of the old Superman tagline, “You will believe an ape can speak.” The special effects are amazing, but beyond the pixel manipulation that brings Caesar and company to vivid life, there are remarkable performances that, for lack of a better phrase, humanize the apes. These aren’t the erudite apes of the Roddy McDowell era, with vocabularies that would impress even Conrad Black, but simian characters that behave somewhere midway between pure instinct and higher intelligence.
Gary Oldman, as a human protectionist, Jason Clarke as the human who reaches out to Caesar in the spirit of friendship and cooperation and Keri Russell as his resourceful wife are all terrific, but I went bananas for these apes.
Beyond the flashy special effects and Serkis’s understated but powerful performance—this is the kind of performance that could convince the Academy to consider “motion capture” acting for inclusion in the Oscar acting categories—is a smart movie about race, gun usage and xenophobia. Its masked in allegory and, well, a story about talking apes, but it doesn’t shy away from big ideas and that is the thing that transforms it from a run-of-the-mill air conditioner flick to a thought provoking night and exciting at the movies.