Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the prequel reboot of the everlasting franchise first started in 1968, found a very interesting and engaging way to tell a modern, tragic allegory but wasn’t ever able to fully let make you forget you knew where the story ultimately had to go. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a sequel to Rise that takes place ten years later, has the same virtue and the same flaw as its predecessor, with better direction but a weaker script.
Dawn quickly recaps the events of Rise over its opening credits, for those new to the series, before reconnecting with Caesar (Andy Serkis), the super-intelligent chimpanzee who escaped human captivity and built a colony in the redwoods outside San Francisco. Ten years have passed since humans began dying from simian flu, and two have passed without Caesar or his followers seeing a human.
After establishing the complex hierarchy and society of the apes, Dawn introduces a wandering group of people, led by Malcolm (Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke). Malcolm lives with a group of survivors in San Francisco that is almost out of power and needs access to a dam in ape territory. Caesar and Malcolm form a tentative trust, but bigots on both sides begin sabotaging any true chances of peace, driving the film to its reactionary final act.
While Malcolm and Caesar are wonderfully complicated and believable characters, most of the others in the movie are interchangeable and barely warrant names. While Rise of the Planet of the Apes had just a single despicable, one-dimensional jerk that ruined things for everyone and caused every conflict, Dawn has two: the human Carver (Kirk Acevedo) and the simian Koba (Toby Kebbell). The screenplay lazily gives them repeated opportunities for them to stir up more trouble, without any of the most intelligent characters noticing or caring.
The weak storytelling devices of the prejudiced Carver and Koba are symptomatic of a much less intelligent screenplay than Rise’s. All the obvious parallels between the apes and the humans are bluntly and repeatedly drilled into the audience, the movie seeming to assume people won’t be able to figure it out for themselves.
While the first two thirds of the script are at least engaging, the final act feels quite bloated. Right when you think the third act is coming to a close, it reveals itself to be the end of the second act, leaving another 30 or 40 minutes that seems to try any- and everything to keep you interested, like a parent struggling to entertain a bored child. The one smart move the script makes is to shift the perspective from the human protagonists of Rise to the apes, allowing the audience to better understand and empathize with Caesar this time.
Clarke is quite good as Malcolm and Serkis gives one of his greatest performances as Caesar, but too much of the screenplay is lazily borrowed from other material or convinced of its own genius despite its triteness and clichés. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) does an admirable job of filming it, but despite how good much of it is, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ultimately doesn’t rise any higher than its 2011 predecessor.