Caesar isn’t entirely a pacifist but he’s no war-monger either. He doesn’t want to go to war with humans, though Koba does. Caesar feels that by allowing the humans access to the dam he’s working in the best interests of his kind, avoiding any conflict that could get the apes killed. But it’s evident that Caesar has learned kindness and compassion from the noble humans he’s met. He also sees Malcolm is a good man and senses the humans are desperate.
Koba hangs on a edge at the film’s climax, after a fight between him and Caesar. He says to Caesar “Ape shall never kill ape,” to which Caesar grabs his hand and then intones “You are not ape,” letting him fall, echoing Koba’s execution of Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) at the end of Rise. By betraying the commandment Koba is no longer an ape. He’s a twisted version of an ape that needs to be let go. But while Koba dies he still gets what he wants, a war between apes and humans. The ending of the film is similar to that of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in that the heroes don’t really win. Caesar didn’t want a war but now he has to fight against humans if his kind is to survive. Just as how Batman had to take the fall for Harvey Dent’s crimes to save Gotham's soul.
Similar to Rise, Dawn’s main flaw is the characterization regarding its human characters is a touch too thin. I really wish I got to know these people a little better. I do, however, like that the film allows these people to share very human moments. The characters as a result aren’t completely soulless. I like the parallel between Malcolm and Caesar being fathers who are attempting to get close to their sons. Malcolm’s son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is still adjusting to his new step mom, the aforementioned Ellie. The film is very male dominated. The female characters- Ellie and Cornelia- have even less characterization than the males. Clarke makes a solid lead, showing both vulnerability and an inner strength. Russell does well with what little she’s given. Gary Oldman also does fine work as Dreyfus, the human leader. While Dreyfus could’ve been made in to a shallow human villain there’s an devastating moment where we learn what Dreyfus has lost.
Matt Reeves takes over the director’s chair from Rise’s Rupert Wyatt. This is Reeves’ fourth film, following The Pallbearer, (1996) Cloverfield (2008) and Let Me In (2010), the remake of the Swedish Vampire film Let The Right One In (2008). Reeves is also known as the creator of the TV series Felicity (starring Russell.) Let Me In is the only previous directorial effort from Reeves that I had seen before this film. While that film strewed too close to the original, Reeves’ direction was elegant and his command of tone impressive. Reeves bring that same directorial elegance to this film. While there is plenty of action as the film progresses, Reeves doesn’t stage the action in an empty, bombastic fashion. The ape attack on the city has real dramatic weight and a conscious sense of horror to it. A 360 degree shot on the top of a tank blends beauty and utter destruction majestically. This shot reminds me of the shot from Let Me In, in which we're in a car as it rolls over. Like Wyatt, Reeves favours build up to outright bombast. This is even more leisurely paced in some ways than Rise was. But I like how the film is more interested in story-telling and atmosphere then it is in set pieces.
The motion capture work in the previous film was impressive but it feels like it’s on another level here. Serkis has revolutionized film acting over the last decade. His work as Gollum changed how we thought about CGI characters on film. His work on Caesar is even more nuanced and emotional. To me Caesar feels as real any modern film character and it’s been amazing witnessing his journey as a character over these two films. Kebbell also deserves props for making Koba a haunted antagonist, a character whose evil masks their own hatred and bitterness. Koba is an incredibly tragic character who’s as important to this film as Caesar.
I don’t want to oversell Dawn of the Planet of the Apes but I think Hollywood would be in better shape if more blockbuster type films were like this. In its strongest moments it comes as close to an artistic vision we’ve seen in a franchise tent pole this summer. Rise and Dawn show that franchise films don’t have to be completely corporate mandated and soulless- that there’s potential to create compelling stories using a familiar brand. Both RIse and Dawn have redefined- for me at least- how I view this franchise and what it’s capable of artistically. And I'm excited to see where the series goes next.