Whenever a sci-fi action movie gets a sequel, it’s almost a given the director’s going to promote it saying “This is our Empire Strikes Back.” Empire‘s generally considered the golden standard for sequels and the high point of the Star Wars series for a variety of reasons (the stop-motion wonder of the Battle of Hoth, the comic wisdom of Yoda, dialogue that doesn’t suck), but its biggest impact on a generation of filmmakers is that it was their first exposure to tragedy. The heroes had all lost in various ways, and the revealed identity of the villain layered everything in dark irony. A happy ending would have to wait for part 3. So it’s no surprise when the second part of a series goes dark.
Yet Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves’ follow-up to 2011’s pleasant surprise Rise of the Planet of the Apes, surprises with how dark it gets. The previous movie was already working in a more morally complex universe than the black-and-white world of Star Wars; it managed to lead the audience into rooting for our own demise. But Dawn is bleaker than even something as morally complicated as The Dark Knight, which had at least a few moments of optimism and a hero whose code, while at times questionable, was never truly corrupted.
In Dawn, both humans and apes feel victimized by one another, and lash out with violence against the innocents of each other’s populations. I’m incredibly curious how this movie will play in Israel, given how much this reflects the conflicts that are once again rising up. There are those trying to do good on both sides, but their efforts end in either hopeless failure or pyrrhic victory that compromises their values. The tone is decidedly heavy, and the rare moments of laughter mostly come, oddly enough, from a terrorist.
The apes are amazingly expressive digital actors. Much of the film is centered purely around them, with their “dialogue” translated from sign language to subtitles. The humans are decidedly less interesting, though Malcolm, the diplomatic plague survivor played by Jason Clarke, is likeable, and his son has some good moments interacting with the orangutan Maurice. Andy Serkis brings his performance as chimp leader Caesar to a new level of sophistication and brilliance. The guy needs his Special Achievement Oscar already; if a tear-jerker scene with a camcorder in an abandoned house doesn’t earn it, the look on his face as the film ends, a look of concern and shock at what he is becoming and what his society wants him to become, absolutely seals the deal.
Matt Reeves directs Dawn of the Planet of the Apes assuredly, with impressive action and ever-mounting dread. The effects are simply the best, supported by great performances. There’s a strong political message to the movie, and it’s kind of refreshing to see a mainstream movie travel this far into darkness. Still, while the film’s overall quality is pretty much equal to its predecessor, I think I personally preferred these Apes films when they were a bit more fun and a bit less depressing.