The last ape movie was the surprisingly highly-evolved reboot/prequel Rise of The Planet of the Apes in which James Franco raised a young ape called Caesar as all around, simian flu took its deadly toll on mankind.
It was smarter than your average blockbuster and an intelligent approach to an old franchise. We return to a shattered planet Earth some ten years later with most of humanity depleted and the actual simians getting themselves back to the garden and doing rather nicely thank you very much.
Alpha ape, Caesar, is now a very big boy and is ensconced as the natural and peaceable leader of a growing community of intelligent apes high up in the forests above San Francisco, while far below, humankind scrabbles about in the ruined city with resources running perilously low.
Both species have settled into societies where talk of each other’s existence is based on fear and ignorance. The same as most conflicts, so. However, when a reconnaissance team of humans venture into Caesar’s territory to investigate the possibility of re-starting an abandoned hydro dam, ape and man come face to face for the first time in many years.
The good humans are lead by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) who sees this re-engagement as a chance to get all Dian Fossey up in the hills while back in the ruined city, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) sees the apes as a barrier to re-establishing some kind of civilisation. Oldman as Dreyfus is gripped by fear and distrust and is very good in the role but Clarke and his touchy-feely family are the only real weak link here.
But this was never going to be a movie about damn dirty humans. Caesar, played in motion capture by the chameleon-like Andy Serkis, dominates the story but the best scenes belong to his right hand (with opposable thumbs) ape Koba (Toby Kebbell), who grumbles about this new fraternisation with the old enemy and begins to make moves for the position of King Monkey as the possibility of bloody confrontation between ape and man mounts.
Director Matt Reeves and screenwriters Mark Bomback and Rick Jaffa make nods to Planet of The Apes lore throughout. The hulking and rusting Golden Gate Bridge, the gateway to the city of peace and love back in the late '60s, is not quite the chilling shorthand for human destruction as the Statue of Liberty in the 1968 original, but the sight of hordes of apes clamouring, scampering and swinging about its red structure is riveting.
It looks great but this latest simian saga gets bogged down in moralising and some very wooden acting from the poor old Homo Sapiens. Poor pacing often means that the tension is often dropped abruptly for a surplus family drama sub-plot.
However, when the warlike Koba explodes into action, it really springs into savage life. His battle with Caesar is thoughtful, tense and bloody and Koba is given to freaking out just like Kubrick’s Moonwatcher except that he’s got a dirty great machine gun and not a tapir bone in his hand.
To WC Fields' injunction that you should never work with animals or children should be added, 'or motion capture apes'. Serkis and Kebbell steal the whole show in face of mostly wooden human performances.
As a complex drama and a solid action flick, Dawn of The Planet of The Apes really does come down from the trees.