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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review: Solid Follow-up, But...

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is good enough, but...
WARNING: Major spoilers ahead.

In 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes lovingly and powerfully reinvigorated this franchise by focusing on the mistakes humanity would ultimately pay for their arrogance. Unlike many dystopian dramas, it made character development more important than the CGI world around it. And while the follow up makes great beauty in its digital imagining of a world gone mad, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes fails in telling its human story.

Set 10 years after the simian outbreak, humans are on the edge of extinction, huddled together in San Francisco with the remaining resources of its once powerful technology. On the other hand, apes are getting along quite nicely thank you, as Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his village are living an idyllic life deep inside the Muir Woods. But soon that peaceful existence is threatened as humans stumble upon their tribe looking to restore power to a generator in the ape's sphere of influence. After meeting the kind leader Malcolm (Jason Clarke), Caesar is forced to re-examine emotions about humans he thought were long-since dead. But while Caesar remembers the good in them, his lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) only remembers the humans' more cruel side as a prisoner in their labs. His feelings about humans representing a deadly threat to ape life mirror those of the human military commander Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who feels the same way about the apes. As factions within the ape camp grow, Malcolm and Caesar become painfully aware that a peaceful co-existence is no longer in the cards.

Dawn certainly feels more like a bridge to an impending Part 3 than a standalone drama of humans struggling against apes. And that's perhaps its greatest strength and most paralyzing weakness. There's a certain inevitability to the film that keeps bubbling to the surface - each time humans and apes join forces, something conveniently happens to remind us that one will soon enslave the other. While apes like Caesar are deeply toned, human characters are nothing of the sort, leaving females like Keri Russell to disappear during the film's last 25 minutes, her medical background being the only reason for her value in the first place. Once the shooting starts in a tense third act, she makes her quiet departure. Oldman, for all the gravitas he brings to the screen, is so thinly penciled here that his one deeply emotional moment feels almost out of place as compared to the rest of his cold calculating military commander persona. Minus one scene where his humanity shows, Oldman is not really needed here.

Start peeling things back and you see where the problem might lie: the bevy of writers including Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. It's almost always a bad sign for a film when too many writers get involved, and Dawn does seem to suffer from a Frankenstein-ish cut and paste job. While it's clear that they and Director Matt Reeves have moved this story almost exclusively to the apes, the mix doesn't feel quite right. Clarke - for all of his emotional and caring nature - has virtually no background and thus seems like someone who merely leads because he can. While he portrays Malcolm well enough, it's nowhere near that of James Franco. Malcolm is apparently the fulcrum on which the entire human campaign seems to rest, and yet it all feels strangely localized. Is there truly no other humans out there, and are there really that many apes throughout the country?

What does work is the incredible CGI behind the apes: everything about them - from their fur to individual expressions - is so well done that one can't tell where the capture suits end and the real apes come out. Technically, it's a masterful effort and Serkis as Caesar is again top-notch, his evolving mind wracked with doubt about humans as he struggles to keep Koba from dominating the band. When that eventually happens - and who couldn't see it coming a mile away - his peaceful demeanor gives way to a sort of tired resignation about the war to come. Serkis is a master at suit capture acting, his expressions setting the pace for Gollum and now for Caesar; it's likely we'll hear talk of an Oscar nomination, but only you can decide if that - and the film itself - are worthy. From my perspective, the film itself is not on par with Rise, thus his performance should not be considered. While that debate will no doubt rage on, Composer Michael Giacchino's nostalgic score is also worthy of quick mention, reflecting a return to Jerry Goldsmith's original Planet of the Apes style.

But once again, even these elements are minimized when it comes to identifying many of the apes from scene to scene. Although Caesar and Maurice are easily discernible, others like Alexander and Koba are many times impossible to tell from the other, especially during the third act. Here, the mowing down of apes is equal to the experience of playing an RPG video game, with Koba's Rambo-like attack style almost comical. Reeves and the special effects team at WETA do excel at giving these apes life, but soon it all feels rather Transformers-like in creating a visual soup. Some might claim that a gritty movie like Dawn does satisfy our need for a gripping drama about the dangers of man poisoning his world. Granted, but it's the execution of that message that has me feeling a sense of letdown, even though the ending clearly shows where the franchise - and humans - are headed. If you're planning to see it, consider upgrading to a premium experience, such as 3D or IMAX, although I'm not sure if RPX or Atmos will have the same effect. If only the story were as compelling as the visuals.

Dawn of the Planet of The Apes feels like a 145-minute production cut down to get more screenings, its lack of female leads - human or simian - and the fate of Franco's Rise character unapologetically tossed aside. Its message about falling off the deep end into war is poignant, but too many factors produce a cloud of doubt that ultimately undo this well-meaning production.

Dawn of the Planet of The Apes is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and brief strong language and has a runtime of 130 minutes.

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There's an inevitability to Dawn's slide towards chaos that takes away from its spectacular effects, chilling dystopian world and promising character drama.

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