To get this out of the way first: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, apart from having as clunky a title as its predecessor, is an uneven film. It suffers mainly from two things: its overall plot is perfunctory and predictable due to the movie’s premise and it being a prequel, and the human characters are usually less interesting than the apes, especially when they interact among each other.
At the same time, Dawn gets one thing very right, and that’s the simian drama. While it takes a while to get going – the film’s first twenty minutes or so are oddly reminiscent of 2001 (which is helped by a score that evokes György Ligeti) in how they are entirely set among apes, with no human interaction – it becomes a strong driver for the plot, even when it’s fairly clear where it’ll end up.
In fact, I would go so far as to say something that I usually find pretentious, annoying and inaccurate in reviews: this is some downright Shakespearean shit. Dawn sets up a character triangle that on paper sounds supremely generic: Caesar, the main simian character from Rise of the Planet of the Apes of the Title that Never Ends, is in conflict with his adolescent son Blue Eyes who thinks that his old ape is too much of an appeaser towards the human survivors. Meanwhile, Caesar’s second-in-command, Koba, holds a fierce hatred for humans due to having been the subject of experimenting before the apes rose against the humans. Blue Eyes is drawn by Koba’s strength and ruthlessness but not oblivious to his descent into cruelty and despotism.
Although this could very easily end up as a constellation straight out of Scriptwriting 101, the performances elevate it onto a level that is both archetypal, rather than generic, and specific to those characters. I write “performance”, though I cannot say where the actors’ motion-captured acting ends and the animators’ task begins. (This is a different discussion and one that the experts must debate.) For the audience, what matters is that Caesar, Blue Eyes and Koba utterly come to life on the screen. ‘Digital actors’, or whatever the term du jour is for all-CGI characters, may not look 100% convincing and integrated into filmed material at all times just yet, but in terms of animation and acting the film’s central trio of apes is entirely convincing and engaging.
To get back to my earlier description, though: I usually dislike reviews describing anything as “Shakespearean” because to me, what makes Shakespeare lies almost entirely in the words. Take those away or reduce their importance – and neither of the two recent Apes movies is focused primarily on language – and what is left? Nevertheless, Dawn deserves the descriptor to my mind, as even without language it evokes a conflict between its simian characters that is as potent and effective as those in Shakespeare’s historical dramas especially, and pushing much the same buttons. Blue Eyes may not be a Prince Hal, but Dawn juggles its conflicts between the personal and the political deftly enough not to be entirely embarrassed by the comparison.
I’m curious to see where they’ll take this new series of Planet of the Apes films next. I expect that the third film that Dawn clearly leads up to will suffer from similar problems in terms of plotting and predictability, but if they can build on the characters they’ve established they could still end up with a strong film. Never mind an infinite number of chimps banging away at typewriters: put the apes in the acting chair and you may just end up with a smidgen of Shakespeare’s magic.