Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was unexpectedly excellent, revitalising a franchise that had been worn into the ground with a great blend of story, character and action. Matt Reeves’ sequel is enjoyable but doesn’t expand enough away from Rise to feel like anything more than an extended epilogue, focusing exclusively on a single group of surviving humans bumping up against the ape society. While this keeps the film tightly focused, it also doesn’t tell the audience anything we couldn’t have assumed for ourselves. There’s some solid direction, a great score, and great performances from the ape cast, but the end result feels a little inessential.
Complaints about scope aside, Dawn isn’t bad at all. While the direction is a little less gripping than in Rise there’s still some standout moments. The mass of apes arriving at the gates to warn off the humans is a great fuck-you gesture and helps to underscore just how successful the ape society has become while the humans have declined. When the big fight kicks off there’s a point-of-view shot on top of a rotating gun tower on a tank that deserved applause, and there’s also a shot of an ape riding through fire on horseback firing two machine guns. It’s memorable, if a little gratuitous.
The score by Michael Giacchino is a good one, with Monkey City, Along Simian Lines and the Ligeti-style The Lost City of Chimpanzee standing out in particular, doing a lot to make the film feel like part of a Planet of the Apes franchise with odd percussive notes and otherworldly choral chants that hark back to the original films.
As far as characters go, it’s as it was in Rise: great apes, puny humans. Andy Serkis is as good as ever though has less to work with this time, playing in Dawn an almost isolationist character and a reluctant leader by the end. Toby Kebbell, as Koba the scarred, abused bonobo from Rise is more interesting, going from loyal follower to enraged usurper and also doing a nice line in PG Tips-monkey-style tomfoolery that’s chilling when you know how much rage it’s masking. Kobo is an ape that learns through the film how to hate, betray and lie, and as such he’s always the most interesting character on screen.
But on the human side, there’s not much going on. Gary Oldman phones in a standard Gary Oldman template performance and there’s nobody else even remotely memorable. There’s…the lead guy, the lead guy’s kid, the lead guy’s girlfriend, the twitchy paranoid guy, and so on. They may have even had names. When the apes make captives of the human population I know that as a human I’m supposed to be caring about humanity as a general concept, but specifically? Who was I supposed to be rooting for, a sea of unknown background actors or the personable (albeit genocidal) apes?
As far as the franchise goes, Dawn attempts to portray the “shot heard round the world” moment, but it just feels like it’s showing a minor, isolated skirmish; there’s never the sense that the events of this film are the start of anything, even with the characters at the end saying out loud THIS IS DEFINITELY THE START OF SOMETHING. Still, Dawn is enjoyable enough despite its problems, and in the grand scheme of things it’s still, like, the third best Planet of the Apes film ever.
Worth watching now, to be forgotten later.