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Caesar with his son Koba in ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’. A still from ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’
Caesar with his son Koba in ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’. A still from ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’

Film Review | Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dazzling motion capture technology propels a moral thriller

The ape movie makes man small. The end of Planet of the Apes (1968) wouldn’t be as startling if man was any big. It was the first Hollywood film that took the French novel La Planète de singes by Pierre Boulle as its source. It ends when lost astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston), finally free from the talking space apes, dismounts a horse somewhere ashore Liberty Island in New York and props on his knees, exasperated, realizing he has just returned from Post-Apocalyptic Earth.

The new Planet of the Apes film, Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, takes this grand theme, the moral repercussions of the human impulse to invent, experiment and destruct, to construct a hefty digital drama.

It is a moral thriller rather than than a sum of action set pieces. The motion capture technology in Reeves’ film is astonishing, as you would expect from any Hollywood blockbuster these days, but its purpose is more than to thrill the eyes. Every crucial simian thought or emotion is lucidly visible, the wild is visually layered and mysterious, climactic action sequences have grand sweeps.

Unlike what you would expect from a digitally-designed blockbuster, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a rare sequel. It would easily stand alone. The last film of the franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), was also a digital marvel, and had the tragic force of an inter-special relationship at its centre. Caesar, who loved human life, closed the door on his favourite man and joined an embittered Simian army. And the army ran free.

The new film opens in deserted San Francisco that has only a small colony of human survivors of a deadly disease. Its leader is Dreyfus (the magnificent Gary Oldman, sadly in a role that spans just a few bouts of intense yelling) and its real hero is Malcolm (Jason Clarke). This community’s only source of power—and their only hope of further sustenance—is an enormous waterfall deep inside a neighbouring forest. Caesar (Andy Serkis), now both ferocious and compassionate, rules in that forest over kin and family (which includes the most adorable ape baby you will ever see on screen). The talented artists at work in the film render Caesar, a classical hero whose courage and honesty couch his fragility, with amazing vividness. The simian bonds and emotions are riveting to watch—and easy to believe.

The nature of power and leadership, the need for gun control, human control over wild nature, the limits of acquired intelligence—Dawn of the Planet of Apes encompasses these themes with sensitive, character-driven writing and story-telling. The point of view is overwhelmingly simian, and triumphantly so. Humans are almost redundant, and what’s left to watch is a spectacle of primal living, unfettered emotions and moral fibre.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes releases in theatres on Friday

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