The story, like Rise, is straightforward. The acting is solid. The music by Michael Giacchino (one of my favorite composers) is great, alternately orchestral and dissonant. It’s very well shot, too; new franchise director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) certainly knows how to create a dynamic, tense mood. The script at times is a bit overly explanatory and the human characters don’t exactly have much depth. But by and large, it’s all great, an improvement on the first film in nearly every way.
But I don’t want to talk about all of that. I want to talk about the special effects and the motion capture performances from the cast of apes, and how the two combine to give the film a surprisingly resonant emotional backbone I was not in any way expecting in a movie about super smart apes.
The special effects are nothing short of groundbreaking and Andy Serkis gives an unbelievable performance. If Gravity showed us the future of visual effects as spectacle—dazzling, sweeping, and vertigo-inducing--Dawn of the Planet of the Apes shows us the future of visual effects as drama—emotional, human, and powerful. It doesn’t matter how much of what we see on screen is Serkis and how much is ones and zeroes. They come together to form one amazing character inhabited completely by one amazing actor who gives one amazing performance. When you look into Caesar’s eyes, you don’t see a fabrication of VFX engineers. You see a character, a being with dreams and fears and history and emotion. Caesar and Serkis are powerful, heartbreaking, intimidating. To quote the film, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
All of that—the acting, the story, the motion capture, the score—all of it combines to make a blockbuster that isn’t about style over substance. At its core, Dawn is thoughtful and somber. Its themes about war and sacrifice are so well realized that I didn’t know who to root for; both sides had internal power struggles, and both sides had good reason for going to war. And by the time the final battles begin, after tension has steadily been building for the entire film, each life carries weight, human and ape alike.
Dawn is a blockbuster that doesn’t feel like a blockbuster. Yes, it has dazzling special effects and intense sequences of violence, but at its core it’s a character study, one grounded in small-scale relationships. It’s the story of two groups and the people struggling to lead them. It’s an unsubtle and potent allegory for modern political conflict, and a powerful allegory at that. It’s emotional and thrilling and powerful and sad and tense and fantastic. And if Andy Serkis isn’t nominated for an Oscar, then no motion capture performance ever will be.
(I’m speaking directly to you now, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. For fuck’s sake, give Andy Serkis a goddamn Oscar. I cannot overstate this enough. Just give it to him.)