A twisted Darwinism courses through Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the latest contribution to a long-running allegory of human behaviour via the journey of intelligent, talking primates up the same rungs of the evolutionary ladder. Even more so than its direct predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn is faster, louder, and grimmer than the talky late ’60s/ early ’70s epics that inspired it, taking those older films’ ideas about inter-species conflict and making them more visceral than cerebral. Picking up 10 years after the apes’ initial rebellion led by the alpha-chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis), Dawn’s opening credits clue us in to a new world order. A viral plague has wiped out a large percentage of the world’s human population; meanwhile, the apes have consolidated themselves into a thriving community just outside of San Francisco, where a band of desperate human survivors clings to life. When a few of these people encroach upon ape territory in search of a power supply that could save their fledgling settlement, it fosters a mistrust within both communities that eventually leads to violence, despite the best efforts of sympathetic human allies such as Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his physician wife Ellie (Keri Russell), and their teenage son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Dawn is essentially about the failure of diplomacy in the face of disastrous internecine conflict, a theme supported more by the film’s stunning visuals than its draggy plotting and questionable logic. Building off the technological advancements and Serkis’ ground-breaking motion-capture performance in Rise, director Matt Reeves fills the frame with all sorts of CGI primates: running, leaping, screeching, riding on horseback, handling automatic weapons – the possibilities are endless in a seamless blend of motion-capture and live-action footage. These fantastic digital compositions are the movie’s greatest triumph, elevating a script that disappointingly settles for inert, two-dimensional flesh-and-blood characters. Reeves commands Dawn’s visual layers with confidence and an occasional flair for bombast – most memorably in a sequence that frames a coup d’etat by Caesar’s main rival, Koba (Toby Kebbell), as a literal descent into hell.
As a whole, however, Dawn leaves little to inference or interpretation. At its best, the Apes series was once a conduit for intriguing (if heavy-handed) commentary on race, ethics, and civil rights. Now, even the faintest subtext is made explicit, with the human-ape parallels written in big, obvious letters and served up with a forceful directness that spells out what this story has become: another big-budget action saga on autopilot, with little space for frivolity or nuance. (Or well-rounded female characters, for that matter. Russell is capable and tough, but doesn’t have much room within her Florence Nightingale role.) It’s admittedly effective, competently executed and well-acted by an overqualified cast – including Gary Oldman as a human leader suspicious of the apes and their potential threat. But it’s also a familiar product and, despite the bold downer endings of its predecessors, is wary of deviating from the status quo. While Dawn of the Planet of the Apes includes nods to both its heady sci-fi roots and its inherited B-movie sensationalism, it clearly favours the latter, and the film’s technological marvels belie its reliance on hoary Hollywood story templates: even as it pulls focus away from the human characters, it’s still ultimately about a clash of alpha males.