Several days later and I'm still impressed by what Dawn of the Planet of the Apes achieves. It's fairly fashionable to bash the number of $175M+ films, we've been getting lately, particularly when they're franchise movies. I don't fault anyone for being upset as the presumed decline in original stories - but that the same time, it's hard to argue that most of the films we've gotten lately in that realm have been pretty damn good.
This summer alone, we've gotten entertaining, intelligent and well-executed blockbusters like X-Men: Days of Future Past, Edge of Tomorrow, 22 Jump Street, Godzilla, and How to Train Your Dragon 2. Yes, Transformers: Age of Extinction was a bit of an anomaly there, and while Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a letdown, the Andrew Garfield/Emma Stone interaction kept it from being a total loss. In the face of all of that, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes still stands above most of them. (Days of Future Past is probably still my current favorite, personally speaking, and I think that's likely to hold by the time Labor Day rolls around.)
Dawn is probably the best film this summer at building tension and character simultaneously, and that equation adds up to tragedy. Even if you went into this story unaware of how events have to turn to line up with later installments, you'd probably be struck by the inevitability of the events, specifically the war between apes and humans.
The story picks up some ten years after the previous film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The Simeon Flu has wiped out the fast majority of the human population while also giving rise to a more intelligent race of apes. In one of the film's boldest moves, we spend at least the first fifteen minutes of the film entirely immersed in the apes' world, following a settlement led by Caesar (mo-cap performance by Andy Serkis.) The apes are vocal, able to speak in rudimentary sentences, but amongst themselves, the most often communicate in sign language. Even given those limitations, the audience very quickly finds their empathy aligned with the apes. They're real flesh-and-blood characters. In a few scenes, they display more depth than the intelligent robots of the Transformers films have across four features.
These apes haven't encountered humans in two years, so it comes as a shock when a small group encounters apes as the humans attempt to make their way to a nearby dam. Unfortunately the first human in the group to run across the apes isn't Jason Clarke's thoughtful Malcolm, but rather the quick-triggered Carver, played by Kirk Acevedo. Carver shoots one of the apes, setting things off on the wrong foot and Caesar surrounds the humans with his army. He shows them mercy, ordering them to leave while also scaring the shit out of them.
Unfortunately, the human settlement down in San Francisco desperately needs access to that dam so that they can restore power. Malcolm bravely returns and convinces Caesar of his honesty. Caesar permits the humans a few days to do their work, though his second-in-command Koba feels humans are not to be trusted. Caesar's decision comes not only from his affection for humans, but his insight that they are desperate. To deny them what they need so badly might only provoke them to return with weapons and take it by force.
Koba, however, feels that Caesar has gone soft. He has a far less charitable view of humans than his leader does. Koba was a lab chimp, used for experiments that have left him blind in one eye and scarred. A lesser film might have just made Koba a hard-headed war monger, but both Koba and his human counterpart Carver have reasons for their prejudice and mistrust. By exploring their hatred of the opposing race, we understand how it will be very, very difficult to forge peace. Malcolm and Caesar are capable of respecting each other individually, but these two societies are on a collision course that will be very hard to avoid.
I don't wish to spoil the many turns the story takes on that way to open conflict, but the real skill is in how director Matt Reeves and the screenplay credited to Mark Bomback and Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver do such a solid job of maintaining and building that tension throughout every scene. There are a couple close calls where you feel like the apes might justifiably kill their human guests, even as we see that the situation in the human colony might push them to open aggression as well.
Neither side really wants a war, but the ones doing the most saber-rattling are provoked into it out of the fear that if they don't strike first, they will be run over. Both sides have their justifications and once the die is cast, the saddest moment of the film comes when it's apparent there will be no way to avoid the consequences.
It's rare to get this sense of tragedy in a summer movie. In fact, it's probably even rarer to find this sort of craft in a franchise that's some eight films in. The reason why the last two Apes films have been so successful is that the concept lends itself to world-building and expansion. Even more fortunately, this is possible without using most of the same cast in each film, allowing for new characters and points of view to come in and add their own flavors to the mix.
It also helps that director Matt Reeves knows how to stage some great action scenes that don't feel like they originated as your generic-brand pre-vis. You can see his preference for longer takes in at least two instances and he seems to understand that the audience needs to be emotionally invested in the pyrotechnics if that action is really going to affect them on any level.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this is that the intended concept for this sequel was actually scrapped mere weeks before shooting after Matt Reeves came in and pitched an entirely different take on the story. We're conditioned from years of entertainment reporting to believe that if a script gets trashed weeks before shooting that there's no way a good film can result. Just earlier this year, a lot of angry muckrakers started crowing about how the new Star Wars was going to be a disaster because J.J. Abrams scrapped Michael Arndt's draft some seven months before shooting. Apes went for a more radical re-conception on an even shorter timeframe, so maybe we could all stand to not assume the sky is falling when some late-in-the-game rewrites are in play.
The real lesson of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that a tentpole franchise film can be compelling and intelligent so long as you hire smart people with a vision and let them tell their stories. I'd like to see more stories that are entirely original, but if we're in an era of franchise films, at least they're very good films!