PJ Campbell’s review published on Letterboxd:
"Apes do not want war!"
It's amazing how much the Planet of the Apes series has changed, and the ups and downs it has gone through. But after Rupert Wyatt's reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the series seemed to finally be back on track to return to its glory days. But no one could be prepared for what was to come, as Wyatt stepped out and Matt Reeves stepped in to the directors chair. Reeves, a self proclaimed fan of the series, has dared to take the series in a new direction we haven't quite seen yet, with his new installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Partnered with Andy Serkis as the film's hero, Caesar, this may not only be one of the best films of the year, but the best Planet of the Apes film in the entire franchise.
One of the strongest aspects of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the time spent with Caesar and the apes, and the way they communicated with each other. Reeves has taken that to the next level here, with really turning the focus of the film onto Caesar and the world of the apes, and the first twenty minutes especially is riveting. Reeves really delves into the life of the apes, and their new world, and the film's opening twenty minutes really plays like an amazing silent film. Letting Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell, and Nick Thurston really show off their acting skills as Caesar, Koba, and Blue Eyes makes you feel very attached to the characters, and you start to really care for them.
You can really feel Reeves' love for the original films behind the scenes here, and he so badly wants to make a movie that goes to the level of the original, but one that really lets you in on the world the apes now inhabit, and he's completely successful at that here. The way we watch as this world falls to the Simian Flu in the film's opening prologue, and the way it completely desolated San Francisco, and the world, is really gripping, and you can start to see signs of the way the world was in the original film. The film has a really great script that lets the dynamics of the characters, and the tension between the two factions of apes and humans, really feel bold and new. It's so interesting that, really, there's no initial villain. The apes don't want war with the humans, and the humans don't want war with the apes, as long as they can find a way to get electricity to the city again. It's that sort of dynamic, of no one is really the villain in this, and the leaders on both sides really just wanting what's best for their people, that makes the movie special. It really dares to make you choose a side, when neither side is right or wrong.
Even with Reeves' love for the series being apparent, this is really a film that's owned by the actors, and really, this movie is completely owned by Andy Serkis. He was amazing in Rise, but he's at a whole new level here. Serkis' performance is absolutely breathtaking, and he has created one of the most lovable and sympathetic characters to ever grace the screen, and the fact he does it so well just with his facial expressions and movements makes it that much more impressive. His stunted speech, as he continues to evolve really grabs you as well, and the way Serkis articulates the words is just really beautiful, and you can tell he's really taking the time to make sure Caesar, as he evolves, grows into naturally. His progression from the first film to the second just feels seamless and natural, and it'll be a crime if Serkis isn't nominated for Best Actor this year at the Academy Awards.
But, surprisingly, Toby Kebbell, who plays Caesar's right hand, Koba, is almost on Serkis' level. Koba, the scarred ape from the first film, really doesn't like the humans, and he believes he's on a crusade of righteousness, even if Caesar won't believe him. One of the film's most pivotal scenes, and quite frankly emotional, comes from Kebbell as he finds himself at odds with Caesar, when he lets the humans stay in the ape camp. Koba doesn't trust them, and tries to plea with Caesar angrily, not to let them stay, and begins showing his scars in an attempt to show the evil of men. Kebbell just owns the scene, and the role in general, and it's great to see another actor who really gets how motion capture works, and really takes it to the next level.
The film really does belong to Serkis and Kobbell, but there are human characters as well, but honestly, they aren't given much to do. The film's biggest flaw is the humans feel underdeveloped, but honestly, that may be the point. This is the film about the apes, and their world, and the humans just happen stumble back into it. Jason Clarke's Malcom is an honorable man, much like Franco's character Will from the first one, and he's the one who Caesar really connects with. He's good, but again, he isn't given too much to work with. The same could be said about Keri Russell and Gary Oldman. Each character has a purpose, but really, they don't get too much to do. But each one of them is great in their small, but pivotal scenes.
One of the best things about the film though is the escalation in the second and third acts, as Caesar and Koba begin to clash, and the eventual confrontation it brings. Reeves shoots action very well, with no shaky cam to be seen. There's beautiful tracking shots, and just amazing scenes as the apes begin to revolt and take over San Francisco, and it's just eerie and beautiful. One thing that really works is during Caesar and Koba's fight is a callback from the last film, that plays a big part here, and the way it plays out is mesmerizing, and you feel like you're waiting on baited breath to see what will happen. This is all attributed to Reeves, who really invests us into this world, and these characters, and really makes you feel for them. What does help though is Michael Giacchino's score, which is very atmospheric and haunting, and really helps push the tension as the film begins to escalate. The man has a way with music that really embodies the feel of the film, pushing it to new heights, and this may be his finest film score to date.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is so beyond your typical summer blockbuster. This a film full of emotion, depth, and a truly unique feel. We don't get many sci-fi films like this anymore. Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell really push motion capture to new heights as Caesar and Koba, really stealing the film. These are award worthy performances, so hopefully the Academy pays attention to them this time around. Matt Reeves has created a sci-fi tale so grand, so beautiful, and so encapsulating, that it makes you wish we'd see more films like this. His love for the series oozes off the screen, and he has managed to not only make what could be the best Planet of the Apes film to date, but one of the best films of the year, period.