Below the digitally rendered fur-coats of its simian starlets, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes finds its soul as a brutish rendition of what seems like Disney favourite The Lion King (1994), only with more chest-pounding machismo and less schmaltzy sing-alongs. The latest instalment of the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise is more savage and ruthless than the previous iterations and director Matt Reeves’ primal endeavours on the big screen offers a blockbuster that is imbued with flare and wit. Whilst the story is somewhat compromised by its loose ends, lead Andy Serkis offers a physical performance as the human behind the huffy and often choleric chimp Caesar.
Tucked away in the green slopes that overlook San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, leader of the ape revolution Caesar struggles between the pressures of protecting his family and defending what he calls home. His kingdom is perched in the jungle on an outlook resembling The Lion King’s Pride Rock, where the apes gather in their varying shapes and sizes. Meanwhile, in the ravaged city ruins of a once-bustling slice of San Francisco, the human populace has drastically dwindled since a deadly virus took its toll. Indeed the atmosphere is more than tense, as the human-ape relationship teeters on the brink of war. The humans’ hope for long-term survival lurks beyond the bridge in the distant belly of the underbrush. Caesar and his fellow apes, however, are adverse to cross-species relations and the fleeting possibility for peace hangs over a war-torn San Francisco.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is undoubtedly lavish with its techno-glitz and grand set pieces. The city remains are coated in a grungy layer of foliage and graffiti, and even in its unkempt state, Reeves’ envisioning of San Francisco is oddly romantic. The blockbuster packs plenty of pop and is often trivialised by the needless noise of its warmongering. There is little inspiration to be had watching a gun-slinging and avenging ape on horseback as he fires aimlessly into the human compound. It may at times succumb to clamorous action sequences, but the visuals are far more impressive in actualising the apes.
Following the Planet of the Apes reboot, debates have been rife about the future of the Hollywood star in the age of digital motion capture. Will the Hollywood star become bankrupt? On the contrary, the technology utilised in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes enhances the mannerisms of the gruff chimps rather than replaces the actor all-together. The apes are the main attraction and Serkis’s motion capture performance helps give the compassionate beast some subtle nuances; Caesar’s war-painted face contorts in anguish and his heavy frame curves with the ape’s weight. Whilst it is certainly impressive, this is to commend the performance as much as the technological feat.
No doubt the motion capture process assists in moulding the empathetic beasts, but the imminent threat levied by war echoes a mutual fear felt by humans and their evolutionary ancestors alike. The importance of family and home nest at the heart of Reeves’ empathetic tragedy and via these themes Caesar and his troop of chimps are oddly humanised. Similar to The Lion King, the film is often mawkishly sentimental about family values and the sacredness of home and turns what seem like feral creatures into loveable beings. The call to arms, however, is a very macho adventure, as Caesar is both the king of the jungle and a protective father/husband; equally the protagonist of the human movement is handsome family man Malcolm (Jason Clarke) primarily motivated by his son’s safety.
Reeves’ punchy instalment cracks open a barrel of monkeys and offers something simultaneously endearing and exciting. Whilst the sequel may lack the characteristic modesty of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), it instead provides scale and grandeur. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an awe-inspiring visual display and the film’s brutality gives the timeless franchise another refreshing burst of life.