dawn planet apesThe second chapter of this recent Planet Of The Apes reboot has been rightly lauded for its visual effects, with New Zealand’s Weta Digital ensuring that the two hour film is crammed full of almost-believable swinging, arguing, fighting, forgiving, warmongering and horse-riding simians. There’s a huge army of them this time round, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis, taking his motion capture acting to new heights), and they are the focus of this film, far more so than any human characters (most of whom, sadly, fail to make any kind of impression as a result). Thanks to the individuals at Weta Digital – and presumably many more besides – this installment is an impressive and occasionally exciting visual spectacle, which at least goes some way to making up for the fact that Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes strictly adheres to the code of the summer blockbuster and shies away from delivering the genuine surprises that would have complemented its dark tone.

The story, by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, begins ten years after the events depicted in 2011’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. An unimaginative opening news collage explains that the global population has been drastically reduced by a simian flu pandemic – James Franco’s Will, joint star of that earlier film, appears to be one of the unfortunate many – and in San Francisco a group of survivors under the leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) have occupied an unfinished tower block (um, why?) Meanwhile Caesar and his fellow intelligent apes have set up their own society in the woods outside of the city, establishing a hierarchy, an education system for the young and even a moral code, which chiefly revolves around the idea that they should not kill their own kind.

As per previous Planet Of The Apes movies obvious parallels between ape and human society are drawn, and commendably the writers and director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) hold onto the theme. In the very first scene, for example, we see apes out hunting, and when a group of human characters are introduced after ten minutes or so they also happen to be in the woods searching for food. There are power struggles on both sides and similarities in the leadership battles that take place: Dreyfus has far less sympathy for the apes than Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, and wishes to fight fire with more fire, while the more peace-minded Caesar is undermined and later usurped by the aggressive Stalin-referencing bonobo Koba (Toby Kebbell). Much comparison is also made between a society that is in a formative stage, and enjoying a certain degree of progression, and one that is in decline and struggling to survive, while mutual mistrust hangs over both factions.

There is palpable tension when the two groups meet, but the greater thrills come during the second half, when human-hating Koba makes his bid to become the alpha male. His brace of fights with the powerful Caesar are gripping, although two scenes he shares with a pair of humans guarding an armory were my personal favourites, and can be seen as a turning point of sorts in this series. An act of brutality by Koba demonstrates the superior intellect of the apes, first and foremost, but it also highlights a growing ruthlessness; it is not a coincidence that the film is bookended by close-ups of Caesar’s eyes, and the final shot clearly shows that the chimpanzee’s hopes for the future have been extinguished. Michael Giacchino’s doom-laden soundtrack serves as confirmation that this film is the dark, bleak middle of a trilogy, with the ominous-sounding War Of The Planet Of The Apes scheduled for 2017.

Reeves had a fairly tough job; he was tasked with building on the unexpected success of the earlier film without re-inventing the wheel, but had to push forward without its star. However Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes must be judged as a success. It is that rare thing: A sequel that actually stands as an improvement on the original, and though there are times when the story feels a little safe, as summer blockbusters go this one was at the front of the pack in 2014. I’d have liked to have seen more made of San Francisco (the Golden Gate Bridge features heavily again, so presumably Alcatraz has been held back for part three), and after two films the series is sadly very light on memorable human characters, but thanks to Serkis and Weta Digital that can just about be overlooked.

Directed by: Matt Reeves.
Written by: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver. Premise suggested by Planet Of The Apes by Pierre Boulle.
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell.
Cinematography: Michael Seresin.
Editing: William Hoy, Stan Salfas.
Music: Michael Giacchino.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 130 minutes.
Year: 2014.