The visual splendor is terrific, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes never rises to the apex of its potential.
The Simian Flu
PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language
As seen in many horror movies, this Dawn begins with a virus spreading around the globe. It’s dubbed the Simian Flu. Millions upon millions of people are wiped out. Unlike many of those other horror movies, though, the end result isn’t the Zombie Apocalypse. It’s a Darwinian tilting of the survival of the fittest, with apes ascending and humanity descending.
The action picks up roughly 10 years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The opening sequences focus strictly on the nascent ape community, nestled in a forest outside San Francisco.
Cornelius (Andy Serkis, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) is a revered leader and soon-to-be father. He’s also got a soft spot for humans, having spent his infancy under the tutelage of James Franco in Rise.
The pecking order of the community of chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas is established. A lot of sign language is used (with subtitles to help the human members of the moviegoing audience follow along), but written and verbal communications are starting to enter into society.
Much effort is put into making the apes compelling and sympathetic. The humans? Not so much.
The first humans in the movie enter by way of a team of scientists and engineers looking to restore a dam’s water flow in order to resume power generation. They’re a disruptive force and, of course, one or two have short fuses and a distinct anti-simian sentiment.
There’s almost zero effort to make the humans relatable. The expectations should be high for a cast of its caliber, but the performances are merely adequate. Gary Oldman does little to establish a well-rounded character as Dreyfus, who is mostly a shadow of Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight trilogy. Keri Russell (TV’s Felicity) enters the Hollywood tent pole derby as a compassionate doctor who treats Cornelius’ ailing concubine. Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) takes on the role of the human lead, Malcolm, but he doesn’t exactly light up the screen with charisma.
Naturally, given the humans’ use of apes in science experiments - one of the more interesting scenes has an ape pointing at all of the scars he suffered by human hands - there’s a lack of trust. And, of course, many of the humans see the ape colony as the root of their problem, regardless of the human element that actually caused the nightmare scenario.
Therein lies the fuse and it’s only a matter of time before the fuse is lit.
What starts out as — hopefully — a slow-burn thriller winds up being nothing more than a perpetual sizzle, even as raging fires erupt and gun shots ring out. While the story is actually on the smarter side of the summer silly season, the pacing is dreadfully slow.
It’s fun to hear the first, rough uttering of the simian credo, “Ape not kill ape.” It’s rather chilling. It’s cool.
Director Matt Reeves (Felicity’s co-creator) knows how to make a great horror thriller — see Let Me In, an American remake of the Swedish Let the Right One In, and he knows how to work visual magic. The effects here are eye-catching and there’s always something interesting to look at, even if it’s merely random debris on an ape’s fur.
But the bulk of the movie simply isn’t all that much fun. As the story — which should be a much more dramatic and resonant prelude to the Charlton Heston era — lumbers along, there’s an inkling of a desire to skip right on over to Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Blow it all up and start over again.