Full spoilers are ahead. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, but plan to, do not read.
From the opening scenes when humans trespass on apes’ territory to the final big clash with the now split up ape clans, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” brings riveting tension on the big screen that, quite frankly, has been sorely lacking in the sci-fi genre for quite a while. “Dawn” is one of the best true sequels in a long time and begins the building of the new ape world that was compelling (for its time) in the original movie series.
Right away, and for much of the intro to the film, it’s obvious that the apes are more than just smarter due to the ALZ-113 drug that led to the apes’ rise in the first film of the rebooted series. They are becoming civilized. They are creating a society that has an education system, a warrior system, laws (the first of which is “Ape no kill other ape”) and even a hierarchy with Caesar unquestionably at the top. The apes’ learning and knowledge go beyond just sign language and basic responses to stimuli. In the 10 “winters” since the end of the first film, the apes have begun laying the foundation for their species to not only survive in the world, but to become the dominant species on the planet.
It seemed inconsistent at first, but there is a perfect balance to the apes’ intelligence here. They speak maybe seven or eight words that aren’t monosyllabic (future, family and prisoner, for example), yet they have a wide range of vocabulary. Their sentence structure is rudimentary, perhaps fitting for any civilization that is learning to speak.
Being immune to the virus that has wiped out civilization as we know it helps the apes’ cause. Now, humans are scarce, holding on for dear life in small pockets, one of which is in San Francisco, where the virus started spreading and where, coincidentally, enough humans were born immune to the virus that they might find the means for survival.
“Dawn” director Matt Reeves—who delivers his breakthrough performance behind the camera after only having experience with a few TV episodes and a lesser-known movie here and there—presents a telling, provoking paradox as the humans, the supreme beings of Earth, are struggling to live without abundant electronic capabilities and power while the apes grow ever stronger.
The tension of the movie picks up in an early scene when a group of humans bands together to traverse the wild in hopes of finding resources. The apes quickly show their might—and intelligence—and as the humans are allowed to return home, they begin realizing they will need the apes’ help.
The irony here, of course, is that the apes know that helping the humans might lead to them coming against the apes later. The ensuing reverse cat-and-mouse games are fragile, while the fear of escalation is in an always-lingering state of persistence.
At times, things do get ugly. In one scene, the humans unknowingly possess guns, which the apes strictly forbid them to have. Another time, the apes sneak away from their village and into the shambles of the humans’ facilities in the city only to discover there might be violent intent by the humans after all.
But what makes everything work is Caesar. Ape or human, you don’t think twice about bowing down to him, following him into battle or doing any sort of crazy task he might need from you. Caesar is the kind of leader that motivates the other apes to strive to be better. His unquestioned leadership (at least, unquestioned for a while) even gives humans a hope that maybe there actually can be a peace between them, at least for the time being. But the film does a great job of keeping in back of the audience’s mind an inescapable sense of fear that conflict is just around the corner.
The almost-frustrating, yet somehow ingenious, tipping point of the movie comes from one of the most shocking movie moments in a long, long time. Koba is the angry ape that was tested on in the first ‘Apes’ movie by humans. He grew up full of hatred toward humans for their cruelness. During the end of the first film, it was fitting to see him push down the helicopter and kill one of the scientists that experimented on him.
It’s another thing to see Koba pull off a stunt of this magnitude. He saw that humans had an entire armory of weapons and were practicing shooting for what he presumed was an attack on the apes. But Koba believes that Caesar is too trusting of the humans, so he takes matters into his own hands (It’s amazing how much progress can be undone by a few bad seeds, huh?).
With one of the human guns that he stole, Koba shoots Caesar.
The scene was done remarkably tastefully. For a brief glimpse, we see through the eyes of Caesar, which was a captivating moment. The sound gets muted as chaos soon begins to spread. With the apes in search of a new leader, Koba take full advantage of the opportunity.
The interesting thing about Koba’s action—like many actions throughout the movie, really—is the intention. Caesar knew love when he was raised in the first movie, but Koba only knows hatred and anger. He feels that he is doing what’s best for his kind. It’s very similar to what the General Zod character in last year’s “Man of Steel” film went through. Like Koba, Zod was trying to preserve his race by wiping out its threats, while Superman tried to create peace. Somehow it seems conflict is the only way differing races can settle things. If anything, “Dawn” is a reflection of how our own world’s governments feel toward opposing countries. One of the central themes in “Dawn” is “Are humans any better than apes?”
A pertinent issue becomes whether apes are good enough to themselves. After Koba takes over, he imprisons any ape that stays loyal to Caesar and his ideals. It was a fascinating turn of events.
In the end, Caesar turns up alive, and he leads the fight against Koba, specifically when he actually fights Koba with the rest of the apes watching (think of that scene at the end of the third Matrix movie with the battle between Neo and the Agent Smiths).
The biggest flaw of “Dawn” is more of a personal preference; the scope of what is going in the world and the lasting impact of the events of the film goes completely unnoticed. But that’s because we’re not there yet (obviously the next movie, which will be released in 2016, will shed light on the subject). But the film shows how fragile trust can be, how detrimental rash actions can be, how close we can get with level-headedness. “Dawn” is a masterpiece of brilliant screenplay writing, CG animation and blending of intimate moments and action alike.