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17 Jul 2014

When Apes Attack: 'Dawn' Is a Fantastic, Ass-Kicking Sequel

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A scene from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. A scene from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The motion-capture apes take another step toward world domination in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a film that’s just as good as its predecessor—and a step forward when it comes to pure, unadulterated, ass-kicking ape action.

The movie picks up 10 years after a well-meaning doctor played by James Franco first shot an experimental drug into a chimp and unintentionally initiated the downfall of the human race. Caesar (Andy Serkis, doing his motion-capture best) is leading a group of genetically modified apes in the redwoods near the Golden Gate Bridge. Life is good, and the humans have seemingly disappeared, thanks to the simian flu brought on by the Franco character’s experiments.

However, some humans have survived, led by Gary Oldman’s frustrated Dreyfus, who fears the humans will soon run out of fuel for their generators. There’s a chance for some hydraulic power via a dam in the woods—a dam that just happens to be near the apes’ compound. A band of humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), sets out to repair the damn, and stumbles upon the apes—who aren’t happy to see the humans.

While Caesar has a few positive memories of humans to go with the bad ones, other apes are 100 percent, justifiably pissed at mankind. Koba (Toby Kebbell), who figured prominently in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, isn’t too happy about his days as a lab experiment. He has no interest in a peaceful existence with humans, and he’s going to do some pretty nasty stuff to ensure acrimony. This not only creates discord between apes and humans, but ape-on-ape feuding as well.

Everything leads up to an exciting battle between apes and humans in San Francisco, with a decaying Golden Gate Bridge figuring prominently in the action—along with the blessed sight of Joba blasting away astride a horse with machine guns in both hands. While this installment isn’t as strong with the human element (Franco rocked in Rise), the action in Dawn is far superior.

One of the cooler aspects of the film is that you can’t help but feel bad for Koba, with his clouded-over eye and surgical scars. No amount of compassionately delivered optimism from Caesar will ease Koba’s mind. He’s out to mulch some humans, and his vengeful mannerisms are understandable. This makes him a great, compelling villain.

Clarke, who was awesome in Zero Dark Thirty, holds his own. Keri Russell (who worked with director Matt Reeves years ago on TV’s Felicity) does decent supporting work as the soothing companion with some first-aid knowhow. Oldman is his typical, frantic self as the human with an ax to grind. (His character, like many others, lost his family to the simian flu.)

I caught the film in 3-D, and things seemed a little dark. My first thought was that the filmmakers were perhaps cheating a bit by making things dark so they could cut some corners on the CGI. However, when I lifted my glasses, the images looked a bit brighter. Skipping 3-D might be the way to go.

Reeves, who directed Cloverfield, Let Me In and the vastly underrated The Pallbearer, proves to be a more-than-ample choice for the Apes job. He’s already been announced as the director of the next film in the series, due two years from now.

It’ll be interesting to see where the Apes franchise goes next. I’m holding out hope that it’ll jump many years into the future, with the Icarus spacecraft returning to Earth to make some startling discoveries. Icarus was the ship Charlton Heston rode in the 1968 original, and it was mentioned in Rise during some background news footage and newspaper headlines. The return of Icarus would be many kinds of awesome.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is playing in theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

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