With it’s 91 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a bevvy of critics calling Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes “brainy” and “intelligent,” I can only lament the sorry state of modern cinema, the flaccid nature of American film critics and the combination of the two in lowering our collective expectations as to what passes as a quality film. That the mere sheen of intelligence in a movie about cartoon apes riding horses and shooting guns is enough to distract from the nonsensical plot and warmed-over bluster of this movie is embarrassing. In reality, it’s little more than another special effects-heavy summer blockbuster intent on explosions and property damage. And hell, I’d be the first to sign up for a movie about gun-toting equestrian chimps, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t even have the sense to be fun. Instead, it smothers itself in the worst kind of post-Christopher Nolan blockbuster self-importance and bombast imaginable.
The film picks up 10 years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Most of humanity has been wiped out by disease, and a clan of scientifically engineered, intelligent apes — led by the noble Caesar (a motion-captured Andy Serkis) — have built a simple civilization in the wilderness outside San Francisco. After two years of not seeing any signs of human beings (something difficult to swallow since there’s a colony of them about half an hour away), a group of people searching for an old hydroelectric dam stumble upon Caesar and his clan in an encounter that at first leads to violence, and then to an uneasy, precarious peace between the two factions.
This sets the plot in motion, with the humans wanting to fix the dam and restore electricity to San Francisco (their attempt to make contact with the outside world) and the Shakespearean machinations of the apes who are wary of the species that once tortured and experimented on them. This is where the film has gotten most of its goodwill, as Dawn becomes an obvious civil rights allegory, with the apes having broken the chains of imprisonment and the peaceful Caesar and the violent Koba (Toby Kebbell, The Counselor) vying for power and the right to choose how the apes move forward in sustaining their freedom.
As a whole, it almost works, but the rest of the movie can’t hold the center. And that’s without even getting into the notion of representing the black American struggle through the guise of apes. A lot of the film is, theoretically, supposed to explore the purpose of humanity’s survival, pointing out that, while man can do horrible things, there’s good there, too. The only problem is that nearly all of the people in Dawn are idiots. When they’re not running around shooting things for the hell of it or blowing stuff up, they’re sitting on their hands. The whole purpose of repairing the dam is to fire up some radio transmitter, despite the fact these guys have had electricity in some capacity for the last decade. And can’t one person in San Francisco build a ham radio? No one’s seen this huge mass of apes living in the woods? Why is the armory just sitting around abandoned and fully stocked if civilization has collapsed?
Perhaps none of these faulty plot points would be a big deal, but Dawn wants so desperately to be taken seriously, with its languid pacing and bombastic final shot that’s more silly than iconic. This is yet another movie that crescendos with more mass property damage (and a climax ripped from Tim Burton’s Batman, which is ironic within the world of Planet of the Apes films), iffy CGI (that David Edelstein apparently can’t tell these cartoonish creations from the real thing is depressingly silly) and a whole bunch of assault rifles that never need reloading. What separates Reeves’ film from so many other dumb, forgotten action movies from the ’80s and ’90s besides the appearance of intelligence? Not a lot, but apparently — and sadly — that’s all that’s needed these days. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language.