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MOVIES: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – A thrilling and enthralling revolution – Review

There are so many good things happening in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – from countless artists in front of and behind the camera, during production and post-production – that it is difficult not sounding hyperbolic when saying it is without question one of the best films of 2014. Though it plays the part of a big budget blockbuster, at heart it is a powerful morality tale about loyalty, survival and the myriad conflicts that can threaten both.

The new prequelogy to the classic Planet of the Apes franchise got off on the right foot with director Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), a marvel of mythology reinvention and exploration. While Rise was unquestionably a very good film, Dawn, directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), is a massive leap forward both in terms of the story’s emotional core and the technological capabilities which are so critical to the success of both films.

Dawn takes place about ten years after the end of Rise. While the human population is nearly extinct – some 90 percent of humans having been wiped out by the simian flu unleashed in the first movie – the ape population has grown dramatically. Following the wise leadership of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the apes’ intelligence has continued to advance, their society now communicating through a combination of grunts, words and sign language. The few remaining humans we meet, on the other hand, have been reverted to a pre-industrial existence in the absence of electricity and a rapidly diminishing supply of fuel.

Having lived separately for years, the two populations encounter one another by accident in the forest inhabited by the apes. A team of humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), is exploring a potential power source from the nearby dam when they have a near-fatal run in with the apes. Caesar, understanding that the injuries suffered by an ape were an accident, allows the humans to retreat in peace. But, Malcolm knows they must access the dam or perish. Against his better judgment, Malcolm returns to the ape community. Caesar again shows him respect and understanding, much to the frustration of Koba (Toby Kebbell), one of Caesar’s most trusted friends. The tenuous relationship that develops between the two tribes is like a powder keg that could explode at any moment, each side harboring impulsive members who could be the spark.

From beginning to end, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a brilliantly crafted piece of cinema. Reeves has orchestrated a massive production, but doesn’t ever jettison the story or the characters. The movie opens with one of the most memorable shots of the last few years – a close-up on Caesar’s pained and angry eyes, pulling back to reveal an army of apes – and continues to thrill in scene after scene. Dawn is about both the humans and the apes, neither taking center stage over the other. We learn how both groups have suffered and struggled for survival so our allegiance is conflicted when the inevitable apes versus human battle finally begins. This is not an easy feat, but Reeves, with his keen eye for character and understanding of emotional impact, succeeds in testing our expectations.

While Reeves has delivered a superior film, it wouldn’t be so without the incredible visual effects work from Weta Digital and the unbelievable performance by Andy Serkis. Serkis, best known as Gollum from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings universe, is doing the best work of his career in Dawn, putting himself in a league with Marlon Brando and Daniel Day-Lewis in terms of commitment and passion. We never see Serkis’ face on screen, but his essence is there in every single frame. Caesar is conflicted, angry, tired and alone; throughout the film, Serkis shows every one of these emotions. From the excellent physical performance of capturing the gait and mannerisms of an ape to the expressions that are at once ape and human, Serkis achieves something no other actor has ever done before.

Serkis’ work is aided by Weta Digital and the almost unfathomable leap in their visual effects capabilities since Rise of the Planet of the Apes. They make the apes – all of whom are animated using motion capture technology – as real as the humans on screen. There are moments where the audience will briefly feel they are watching footage of real apes and not just the work of ones and zeroes. Weta takes care in designing each ape’s individual appearance, each looking somehow different from the others. The work done by Weta in Dawn is equivalent to what Pixar did for animation with Toy Story. It is a paradigm-shifting achievement.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a wonderful work of cinema and the most entertaining movie of this summer. No other movie will come close to matching its epic scope and visual triumphs.

Grade: A+

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