I say Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes has a lot going against it because...well...it kinda does on paper. It's a summer blockbuster set in the middle of a so far lackluster summer blockbuster season...and it's also a sequel...DUN-DUN DUUUUUN!!!!...to a surprise hit remake and reboot of a four decade old classic...AND it has an entirely new cast and crew than its predecessor...AND its story and theme are not all that original if you think about it...AND it's a story that leaves things at the end in pretty much the same place they were in the beginning. However, the level of care put in this film and the skill of execution by the people involved hurdles these disadvantages. Think back to when James Cameron's Avatar was out and people would allege, "It's just Dances With Wolves in space." or "It's just Pocahontas in space." People eventually all jumped on that minimization because once they got past the visual marvel Avatar displays, they were left with a paper thin story with paper thin characters. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes takes this same familiar tale (People from two different worlds strive for peace, but are forced into war by skeptics on both sides) and deliver it in a way where you're completely compelled. People in Dawn, as opposed to Avatar, are three-dimensional. They just don't do things to do things. There isn't stereotypical blind heroics or mustache twirling villainy. The heroes and the villains have reasons and rationales that you can completely understand. When characters are at odds with each other later in the film, it is heartbreaking because you actually get to see them laugh and talk with each other as friends in the beginning. In my opinion, Avatar rushes through this step while Dawn revels in it.
Now don't let all this talk of character development fool you. When sh%t hits the fan in this film, it gets truly hair raising...and hair burning. Matt Reeves (The man I so wish was taking over directing duties on Star Trek from friend J.J. Abrams) improves on every set piece and utilizes even more of the extraordinary CGI work from WETA. Reeves gives the film so much weight and scale while still keeping it very intimate. I have a feeling that the inevitable third installment to this franchise will keep the director carousel going, but Reeves staying onboard might be the better studio decision.
This is usually the part of a Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes review where you're supposed to say something about Andy Serkis. And trust me, any amount of praise I can think of to give that man would not be enough. Serkis is a true revelation, and has been one for some time now. I mean, Gollum was over a decade ago! However, lost in the hefty shadow of Serkis are some of the other great performances in this film. Toby Kebbell is terrific from beginning to end. He more than holds his own with Serkis as his right hand ape Koba, which is truly saying something. You might say he has the advantage of getting the more animated bits of acting to do, seeing as Caesar is more reserved than Koba. However, it is in his more quieter scenes that Kebbell really brought this character to life. A scene where he explains to Caesar about "human work" is one of my favorite moments in the film. Jason Chalke has been one of the most underrated character actors for a while now. His performances in Dawn and in Lawless and in Zero Dark Thirty and even in the unfairly cancelled Chicago Code all have one thing in common. They are all real. Chalke never seems as though he is acting to me. He seems as though he is just a real man in this world experiencing what we as an audience are experiencing. He is a perfect protagonist for this. Gary Oldman is...well, come on...it's Gary friggin' Oldman. Nolan's Batman trilogy showed the world one thing that it never knew before. It showed that Oldman can play characters as well subtly as he can play them over the top. His character Dreyfus is played similarly subtle here. He is not a caricature of a hero or a villain. He is just a man who wants to do what he thinks is right.
Serkis caught some flack for a comment he made that seemed to minimize the work of the CGI guys and gals behind Dawn. I, like director Matt Reeves, think his comments weren't meant to downgrade the CGI work for this film. It is nearly impossible to do so if you look at one frame of it. Serkis and Kebbell and Nick Thurston and Karin Konoval and the rest of the motion capture actors are doing amazing and sadly unappreciated work. YOU HEAR THAT ACADEMY?!? However, the work they do is equaled by the work of the CGI team. To use a Star Wars prequel parlance, both of their amazing work forms a symbiotic circle and makes the insane concept of a talking ape convincing.
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a much needed chunk of QUALITY filmmaking jammed into this rather ho-hum summer blockbuster season. It will be lauded as one of the best Planet Of The Apes films ever and one of the better sequels of all time. Well, not by the people I work with from 9 to 5. They most likely won't see it because the monkeys do not jump up and down in front of a 10 foot tall black monolith or speak in iambic pentameter. Don't be as shortsighted as them...also, never give an ape whiskey...or an AR-13...watch it...then tell me I'm wrong.