After the modest success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes arrived to much-deserved critical and fan acclaim. It is the best, most complex, and most compelling installment out of the three. Director Matt Reeves took what worked from the first movie and expanded upon it to make it a much better and more realistic movie.
(Spoilers to follow)
Taking place ten years after the original, it follows the apes, who have now become much more civilized, and the humans, who are trying to survive after the fall of humankind. What makes it so great is that there are heroes and villains on both sides. For the apes, Caesar is the good leader who wants to keeps the apes safe. Koba, though, wants to do the same, but his methods for doing this are directly against Caesar’s, and it causes the two of them to be at odds. On the human side, Malcolm wants to make peace with the apes so that a war doesn’t break out, but Dreyfus wants to attack the apes, because of the threat he feels they pose.
This is a big part of what makes this installment so great. There are so many opposing viewpoints being presented, and they each have their own merits. Caesar had good experiences with humans, since he was raised by one. He’s seen the good that they have in them and has hope and trust that they will do the right thing. But Koba was abused by humans during Rise, and thinks that they are only bad.
At the same time, Malcolm had positive encounters with the apes and sees that they are not inherently threatening. But Dreyfus sees them as beings that are fundamentally different, and therefore feels as if the threat needs to be eliminated before it really starts. This presents such an obvious commentary on racial tension. And it sides with both Caesar and Malcolm in saying that these sides should work together to achieve their goals. Because being at odds only makes things worse.
Beyond this, though, the fact that it has sympathetic characters on both sides makes this endlessly complex. Going into the movie, you might think that this will be a straightforward human versus apes story, but it isn’t. It forces the viewers to think deeply about each character’s specific motivations and ideals, so that they choose a side. In the end, we most likely will side with Caesar and Malcolm, but the other viewpoints – especially Koba’s – can be quite convincing.
Caesar continues to be a well-written and tragic hero in this installment, as well. By definition, a tragic hero is virtuous, as well as destined for suffering. Caesar always tries to do the right thing in every situation. Not only does he look out for the good of his own, but he hears out those who would appear to have opposing viewpoints to him. He is reasonable and quick to listen, and shows mercy, even when a character may not deserve it. His one flaw is that he sometimes lets his desire for good to cloud his vision. He wants to forgive Koba and be at peace with the humans, but these desires indirectly to Koba’s betrayal. Caesar goes through so much opposition, loss, and physical pain in this movie that it’s a wonder he is able to be as good of a leader as he is.
Finally, past the themes in this movie, it just has so many great moments. From an ape driving a tank, to Koba tricking humans into thinking he is a dumb ape, to an apes versus a bear, to Caesar fighting Koba, it delivers visually. It improves on the CGI from the first one and is just fantastic to view.
Dawn does a great job of setting up the final chapter of this trilogy. War is probably the most different film of the three, but also does some things really well. But this middle installment will hold up the best because of its themes and action alone.