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27 July 2014

"They're Talking Apes with Big-Ass Spears"

Has it really been three years since Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out? Apparently so, and CGI has also come a long way since 2011, as clearly shown in ROTPOTA's sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which has Matt Reeves (best known for his TV show Felicity) at the helm.

During the final credits of ROTPOTA, we watched as an animated graph depicting the rapid demise of humankind after the outbreak and spread of a virus that emerged from efforts to devise a treatment for Alzheimer's disease. The eponymous apes — a mix of lab test subjects and zoo animals — formed an army, fighting off the humans on a dramatic battle scene on the Golden Gate Bridge, before marching into Muir Woods.

DOTPOTA opens ten years later, and after a quick update on the status of humanity (spoiler alert: not good) via a series of news reports, we rejoin Caesar (Andy Sirkis), the chimp hero of the first film and now the kingpin of the happy ape community of Muir Woods. Although there are some dangers — Caesar narrowly avoids being killed by a bear, thanks to his second-in-command, the troubled Koba (Toby Kebbell), for example — life is generally good. But everything changes when Caesar's adolescent son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and his friend Ash (Doc Shaw) encounter a small group of humans one day. Panicked, one of the humans — the often rash Carver (Kirk Acevedo) — shoots and injures Ash, prompting the fury of the rest of the ape tribe, who then drive the humans out of the woods.

Back in San Francisco, we learn that humans haven't yet been completely wiped off the planet, but things are not looking good, as Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) struggles to retain some sense of order. Power is a particular problem, with diesel supplies expected to run out within weeks, and the group in the forest, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), were trying to reach and repair a dam that could help to turn the lights back on. Although frightened by wrath of the apes, Malcolm and a small group, including his girlfriend (Keri Russell) and teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), return to the woods to try to persuade Caesar to let them try to fix the dam.

Caesar grudgingly agrees, to the consternation of Koba, who heads back to the city to try to find evidence that the humans are up to no good. He finds a couple of ne'er-do-wells sitting on an arsenal of weaponry and idly carrying out target practice. Koba suffered mistreatment at the hands of humans for his whole life as a lab subject and is understandably distrustful of them. He claims to be loyal to Caesar but is worried that Caesar's love of humans — he had a happy childhood living with Will (James Franco) in the first film — is clouding his judgement and making him unable to see what is best for the apes. When Koba is unable to convince Caesar that declaring war on the humans is the only option, he decides to take matters into his own hands, and as war and chaos descends, it is unclear whether there will be a happy ending for either side.

I really enjoyed DOTPOTA — possibly even more than the first film — and it's one of those rare movies where I would have been happy to watch for another 20 minutes. The visual effects and the animation was very impressive, but it was the characters — especially the ape characters — that really won me over. I was more concerned about what would happen to Caesar, his family and his old buddies, such as Maurice the orang-utan (Karin Konoval), than of what would happen to what might be the last bastion of human life. Malcolm was a decent enough fellow and generally seemed to do the right thing, but there were plenty of less sympathetic humans too, such as Dreyfus and Carver. Not that the apes were perfect either: Koba made for a pretty good baddy. As Caesar puts it, "I see now how much like them we are."

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is, of course, a summer blockbuster and there are plenty of dramatic action sequences. It's also a compelling cautionary tale that tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the ape protagonists.

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