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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Genre Sci-Fi

Whether you believe in evolution or not, there's plenty of great contrasts to be made in The Planet of the Apes saga. After it seemed like Tim Burton had broken the franchise, a prequel in Rise of the Planet of the Apes renewed interest in the science-fiction concept, leveraging Andy Serkis and his second most famous digitally rendered performance as Caesar.

The result was magical, blending groundbreaking CGI and performance in a story that grabbed our attention and imagination. James Franco helped foster Caesar before handing over the reigns to Andy Serkis as the film's scene-stealing lead. Now that the sequel has arrived, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of those rare films where the lead actor is digital.

Perhaps this could explain why so few name actors signed on? Competing with and being outperformed by an ape, King Kong or otherwise, is a nightmare few Hollywood stars would be able to live down. Gary Oldman is probably the closest thing to a name star, and despite being a seasoned campaigner, doesn't share many scenes with Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell or the ape army.

Zero Dark Thirty's Jason Clarke is our human protagonist in what must be regarded as a breakthrough role. He's sincere, down-to-earth and more than convincing as Malcolm, the guy who just wants everyone to get along. He's supported by Keri Russell as Ellie, who is just as earthy in this gritty sci-fi action adventure.

The biggest draw card and budget allocation is the visual effects. It's rare for a frame of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to escape without some CGI laced into it. The effects are impressive, realistic and frequent, portraying an army of apes and extreme close ups that seem more real than real. This precision makes the premise of a growing nation of genetically evolved apes versus human survivors of a devastating virus, all the more plausible.

Director, Matt Reeves, has had quite a filmography up till now, kicking off with Cloverfield and Let Me In, before taking on a big budget production sequel like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. He demonstrated his knack for harnessing a disaster epic like the smart, found footage monster movie, Cloverfield. Then, he managed to get more intimate and moody with the dark vampire drama, Let Me In.

He manages to get the big and small moments right in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. We're entranced by the visual effects and enthralled by the choreography of the action. Then, we empathise with the lifelike apes and Caesar's plight for peace. It's an unusual space for us to rally with the digital actors more than the human actors, but this keeps the fragile balance of power taut.

While Dawn of the Planet of the Apes works visually and in terms of performance, something has been lost in translation. The apes communicate via rudimentary sign language and grunts, not unlike some guys round the fire. The storytelling visuals are so strong that the film could have been silent and you'd get it. Yet, when they speak in broken English between themselves and the humans, something's off.

Winding up the clockwork monkey leaves little else but to watch it smash it's tambourine to a standstill. While the screenwriters probably envisaged interactions between some lost Amazonian tribe and Spanish conquistadors, the dialogue is the missing link and just seems superfluous at times, simply filling in the dead air and purporting war propaganda.

While the adoption and transition to human language is necessary to bridge to the eventual Planet of the Apes, it often feels clunky and unintentionally funny. This uneasy communication middle ground takes away from the film as the humans struggle to relate to the apes and the screenwriters try to make the apes sound more intelligent.

There are some parallels with No Escape, or Escape from Absolom, in which Ray Liotta has to side with the civil prisoners under "The Father" (Lance Henriksen) or The Outsiders, a near-primitive faction ruled by "Marek" (Stuart Wilson). In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it's not an island but a forest with Jason Clarke filling in for Ray Liotta with Gary Oldman as "The Father" and Andy Serkis as the "Marek" character.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has the scope of the prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The visual effects are groundbreaking and bring the apes to life. The brink-of-war tension between ape and ape, human and human and then ape and human, provides suspense. Then, the film benefits from strong performances from Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell and Jason Clarke.

If you can roll with it, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will captivate and entertain you. However, if you get tripped up on the little things, like genetically evolved apes riding on horseback or adopting the English language, you may struggle to truly embrace this shaggy sci-fi epic.

The bottom line: Spectacular

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