I was going to write a review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes which I saw earlier this week, but this review by Tim Robey at the Daily Telegraph says what I would have said and it coins the very smart summary of the film: “Gorillas vs. Guerillas.” Steven Greydanus also sums up what I would have said about the spiritual and moral dimension of the film.
From a design and effects point of view, the film builds splendidly on what was achieved last time. The sets for both the ape encampment and human fortress are stunningly persuasive. Landmarks of derelict downtown San Francisco, caked in creeping moss, put this environment on a par with the urban jungle of I Am Legend (2007), which is a high par. When all hell breaks loose, incoming director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) and his crew make it dark, hellish and disorientating – there’s one magnificently show-offy panorama of night-time mayhem, as Koba seizes control of a rotating tank turret, and the camera follows it through multiple 360-degree turns, taking in all kinds of sound and fury.
There’s evident patience and intelligence to the filmmaking all over, as well as an engagement with genuine ideas about diplomacy, deterrence, law and leadership. However often it risks monkey-mad silliness, it’s impressively un-stupid. Virtuoso flourishes aside, not once does Reeves feel like he’s constructed a scene merely to flaunt how good the effects are – a regular fault with even this summer’s most enjoyable competing entertainments.
Masterminded once again by Peter Jackson’s WETA effects team under Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon, the great virtue of the amazing motion-capture work is how essential it is to the film’s emotional texture: it’s serving character far more often than spectacle, and it’s the characters who make this a ride worth taking. The increasingly useful Reeves, it turns out, was exactly the right man to get his paws on this franchise, and not because they’re squeaky-clean. It’s the dirt and despair we were looking for.
Steven Greydanus offers his usual perceptive review here. As a smart Catholic Greydanus always writes with a sharp moral perception. He picks up the themes in movies and helps us to see them better:
Dawn is about hostility versus empathy, cooperation versus belligerence, suspicion and fear versus daring to trust. It’s also about how much harder it is to build bridges than to burn them, and how maddeningly easy it can be for those given to the latter to undo the work of those struggling to achieve the former…
Dawn offers a remarkably robust allegory of the insidiousness of “us vs. them” ideology: of the tribalist tendency to assume the moral, cognitive or ontological superiority of the in-group, and to define those outside the group as other, as malicious, untrustworthy or worse. Even Caesar, sitting in judgment of one of his own, first finds it necessary to place him outside the group. This is required in a way by his own principles — but it also highlights the importance of moral realism in a fallen world.
Gratifyingly, the film offers this allegory without devolving either into a naturalistic equating of humans and animals or a “noble savage” portrait of corrupt civilized men vs. primitive apes living in harmony with nature.