The shadow of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy encompasses Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes almost completely. Dawn follows Nolan’s trilogy in its faux-realism, with its bleak, muted industrial landscapes (given a post-apocalyptic flavor here), its confusion of drama with the interchange of sober, muted dialogue and shout-filled arguments, and its sense of narrative as relentless onslaught. In this, Dawn departs strongly from the flavor of the original Apes films (as its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes did, but to a different degree), which, outside of a truly excellent initial feature, were not always very good, but were always colorful, mingling humor and tragic spectacle.
Alas, while Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has a kind of narrative wonkiness that leads to genuine surprise, with dissonant elements like Heath Ledger’s Joker and Tom Hardy’s Bane always throwing a spanner in the works, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes plods straight-forward toward an inevitable conclusion. In the right hands, a march toward an unavoidably despairing finale might have been given a more fully tragic dimension—at their best, the original Apes films, which had a narrative stretched out like a nihilistic Möbius strip that always leads to and from oblivion, conjure up a sense of real existential horror—but Dawn‘s script lacks nearly any imagination. Once the chess pieces have all been laid out on the board, it is all too easy to identify which moves will be made (and, making matters worse, they’re not interesting moves, either).
The human characters may be uniformly tedious— every attempt to give them dimension bogs down the film—but the apes, at least, are a vivid presence, brought to life by spectacularly vital effects work and motion capture performances (with Andy Serkis, veteran of motion capture performance, leading the fold as the leader of the apes, Caesar). When the apes command the screen, it’s sometimes easy to forget how mundane the film truly is, if only because of the novelty of their presence, rather than the richness of their characterization.
When the finale arrives, with its thinly-drawn thematic point about the inherent savagery of all of earth’s sentient creatures, it’s big, loud, and senseless (any film that can make the sight of apes using machine guns monotonous is doing it wrong, but this is one of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ many dubious achievements), and all the conflict—ape vs. ape, human vs. human, human vs. ape—never truly resolves, leading to a brief pause that transparently sets the stage for a sequel (which will presumably be titled War of the Planet of the Apes and promises to be bigger and louder and even more tedious than this film). Is it too much to ask for that a series that gave us one of the most poetic and beautiful images in all of science fiction cinema achieve something more than this?
Ah, well. At least the 1968 Planet of the Apes is out on Blu-Ray.