Two Cents Film Club Hails Caesar in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

The team revisits Matt Reeves’ crown jewel of the Caesar Apes Trilogy in a thrilling conclusion to CINAPES 2024!

Two Cents is a Cinapse original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team curates the series and contribute their “two cents” using a maximum of 200-400 words. Guest contributors and comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future picks. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion. Would you like to be a guest contributor or programmer for an upcoming Two Cents entry? Simply watch along with us and/or send your pitches or 200-400 word reviews to [email protected].

The Pick: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

In celebration of the release of Kingdom of the Apes, this month the Two Cents Film Club is revisiting one of the most legendary franchises ever made! This week, we fire up Matt Reeves’ first knockout entry in the Apes franchise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. A follow-up to the surprise success of Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Reeves’ tense exploration of the fragile truce between Apes and Humans imbues the franchise’s sci-fi thrills with riveting dramatic gravitas–anchored by a stellar supporting cast and a second dynamite lead performance by Andy Serkis. In this conclusion to another banner month of CinAPES, the Cinapse team and our guests return to Reeves’ blockbuster to see how its reputation as one of the franchise’s best films has fared a decade after its release.

Our Guests

Nathan Flynn

The allure of Rupert Wyatt’s surprise 2011 hit, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was that Hollywood crafted a film featuring a predominantly silent, motion-captured performance that outshone all of its human characters. A landmark achievement in the use of motion capture technology in the future of filmmaking. Furthermore, its ability to deliver a compelling blockbuster experience without relying on empty, over-the-top action scenes was particularly impressive. Matt Reeves’ subsequent installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, builds upon that promise, presenting a richly narrated tale about humanity’s propensity for escalating violence despite possessing supposed intelligence that stands as one of the best blockbusters of 2011.

In Rise, we left the hyper-intelligent ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) in the California redwoods, having endowed a group of captive apes with a virus created by James Franco (giving an incredibly checked out performance). A decade later, the virus has decimated most of humanity while the ape population thrives. When a group of survivors in San Francisco attempts to negotiate access to repair a dam within ape territory to restore power, tensions immediately arise. Dawn faces the challenge that the audience anticipates conflict. Despite the good intentions of our human protagonist, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), and Caesar’s desire to avoid war, distrust within both factions undermines any chance of peace.

    Reeves is an intriguing figure in current blockbuster filmmaking, having previously directed Cloverfield and Let Me In, vastly different works within the horror genre. His contributions to Dawn and its arguably superior sequel, War, represent a notable advancement. Even his goth and moody foray into the superhero genre with The Batman retains a distinct style often absent in contemporary blockbusters. The film’s opening scenes, depicting the apes hunting and returning home, are remarkable for their use of silence and seamless integration of motion-capture technology. Despite awareness of the performance capture process, the characters feel vivid. However, tensions escalate when humans, armed with guns, encroach upon the apes’ territory, leading Caesar’s advisor Koba (an absolutely scene stealing Toby Kebbell) to incite resistance, drawing from his traumatic experiences with humans as a test subject.

    Despite its predictable trajectory, Dawn avoids gratuitous conflict for the sake of spectacle, ensuring that the misunderstandings and tensions driving the plot feel organic and understandable. The film effectively portrays the consequences of violence, with every gunshot resonating. A standout action sequence depicts apes clumsily wielding automatic weapons, highlighting the weight and purpose behind their actions. While Caesar’s efforts for peace are not portrayed as naive, they underscore the inherent challenges faced by any society.

    Dawn is not a fun romp but rather a tense experience leading toward a dark, fatalistic conclusion. Despite its balanced portrayal of Caesar, it’s super challenging to empathize with the human characters, who receive comparatively less depth. Although Jason Clarke remains one of the most underrated captivating actors working today, Keri Russell’s character, Malcolm’s wife and a former CDC worker, lacks anything meaningful to do, while Kodi Smit-McPhee’s portrayal of Malcolm’s son feels like a completely one-dimensional set of eyes.

    Reeves excels in depicting the dystopian world of Dawn, with the film revolving around Caesar, mirroring the hierarchical structure of ape society we see in the original Apes franchise. While the ensemble cast delivers commendable performances, it’s Serkis, Kebbell and the Weta Digital team that truly bring Dawn to life in a way that is truly groundbreaking and special.

    The film concludes with a somber reflection on the inhumanity inherent in both man and ape, yet it manages to avoid complete bleakness. Reeves’ achievement lies in crafting a narrative that allows for moral ambiguity and open-endedness, providing a satisfying yet thought-provoking conclusion that leads into the impressively bleak and meditative War.

    (@nathanflynn on Xitter)

    Calum Syers

    I recently joked to a friend that the Planet of the Apes franchise, beginning in 1968 and currently enjoying its sixth decade of success, enjoyed showing off how intelligent their movies are. It’s not that it’s the only blockbuster franchise aiming at an age group above the teens and twenty-somethings, but it is one of the few franchises to take so much glee out of flexing its intellectual muscle. Each installment attempts to delve deep and ask questions about subjects like war, vivisection, genocide, and imperialism, to name but a few. Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), the sequel to Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), continues this tradition.

      Dawn depicts two communities, both struggling to forge their path. The ape encampment is led by Andy Serkis’ Caesar, who desperately tries to live in peace and temper his second in command, Toby Kebbell’s Koba. Meanwhile, the human encampment’s power is quickly dwindling; Jason Clarke’s Malcolm convinces community leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) to allow him and his family to venture to the ape’s camp so he can fix a generator based there. The plot is simple, but its simplicity is a way to explore its themes. Two communities distrustful of one another have a chance to work together and build a future, but fear, anger, and prejudice threaten to undo the bonds being built by Malcolm and his family and Caesar; in such a situation, this radicalization can only lead to war.

      The intellectual muscle flexed here portrays how hatred is often stronger than reason, which can only lead to war. When Caesar asks Koba to please allow the humans to conclude their “human work”, Koba points to various scars, scabs, and burns on his body and shouts, “Human work! Human work! HUMAN WORK!” When this hatred is as strong as Koba’s, violence and radicalization. Dreyfus is perhaps a slightly underdeveloped character, but we learn that his distrust of the apes is born just as much as Koba’s from hatred and grief. Malcolm and Caesar’s desires for community match, but so too do Koba and Dreyfus’ desires.

      With the current genocides occurring in the Middle East and Sudan, Dawn’s depiction of how this violence begins shows just how confidently the Apes franchise matches intelligence with populist entertainment.

      Apes together strong, indeed.

      (@calum.syers on Instagram)

      The Team

      Julian Singleton

      I’ve said it in my review of The Batman and I’ll say it again: Matt Reeves may be our most soulful blockbuster filmmaker, effortlessly finding empathy and sincerity in any level of bombastic spectacle. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in particular ranks at the top of my favorite Apes films, and competes with his take on the caped crusader for what I consider Reeves’ best work. He distills the vast social commentary across these films into two dueling impulses, explored to Shakespearean heights: we’re just as compelled to connect and build each other up as we are to utterly destroy one another. 

      It’s an ethos present right from the jaw-dropping opening, immediately setting itself apart from Rise–charting the spread of the simian flu as humanity jet-sets across the globe and into oblivion. Reeves focuses his destruction not just on civilization-ending violence, but the dying desperation to protect one’s families, or give them a peaceful way out–before a banger opening featuring Caesar’s attempts to protect his own tribe in a silent, commanding hunt through the Redwoods. Reeves, co-writing with returning writers Mark Bomback and Amanda Silver, fires on all cylinders with this bold exploration of how Caesar’s forest civilization has thrived while humanity has seemingly gone extinct–creating a silent world in symbiosis with nature, with some amazing sign-language representation to boot. 

      This peace, however, reveals just how fragile it is when Caesar comes into contact with a last pocket of humanity, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), along with survivors Ellie (Keri Russell) and Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee). While his traumatized lieutenant Koba (scene-stealing Toby Kebbell) remains vengeful against any and all humans, Caesar firmly believes war can be avoided–and is intrigued in what might come from a tenuous partnership with Malcolm. Reeves’ exploration of the beautiful limitations of this truce finds its fruition in moments both consequential and small-scale. There’s Alex and orangutan Maurice’s bonding over Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole; the powering up of a gas station allows for an uplifting musical interlude of The Band’s “The Weight;” Caesar’s brief glimpse of the world he left behind in his tapes of training with his caretaker Will (James Franco); and in one of Dawn’s two contenders most humanizing scenes for a villain ever, Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus has his iPad power up for the first time in years, revealing photos of the family he’s lost to time. Of course, the other is Koba’s gripping justification for his hatred for humans, in parallel to Caesar’s dubious faith in them: “Human Work.”

      These effective mini moments never feel lost amidst Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin’s eye-popping visuals of chaos–notably in Koba’s climactic raid of Dreyfus’ ruined pocket of San Francisco, when Koba seizes control of a tank and gives us a mobile 360-degree view of his rampant destruction.

      In such a similar way to how much I was bowled over by the earlier Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Dawn builds to a bleak conclusion whose impact stems from its tragic inevitability. In affirming his position as the rightful leader of his people, Caesar must let go of Malcolm and whatever possibility there might have been in remaining allied with humans. The sense of loss is so palpable between the two, knowing that whatever comes next will shape the destinies of so many. It’s a wonderful moment of tenderness that epitomizes the weight Reeves finds in both the intimate and extraordinary–one that goes unmatched across the Apes series, let alone the Caesar trilogy. In closing on this broken truce, Caesar ends where he began–a steely-eyed leader who will do whatever he can to protect the species he loves from the other he once loved.

      (@Gambit1138 on Xitter)

      Ed Travis

      My second favorite entry of the entire APES saga (behind only the original that started it all), Dawn Of The Planet of the Apes is helmed with auteur confidence by Matt Reeves and represents a level of raw thematic power and blockbuster muscle unseen before or since in the series. Coming off the surprise success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (both in terms of critical and box office success, not to mention a potent thematic depth in keeping with the original series), Reeves’ film makes a leap forward in world-building, visual effects, writing, and character development. The first film in the entire series to truly feature a simian main character/protagonist, Dawn begins with a first act almost entirely devoid of humans, immersing viewers in a new world of entirely convincing motion captured Apes, largely speaking only in sign language. It’s a dramatic and shocking change from Rise and speaks to a studio confident in its series and a filmmaker confident in the goodwill the audience has built up to these decidedly adult skewing blockbusters. Andy Serkis’ Caesar is a profoundly compelling protagonist throughout this trilogy, but Dawn shows him at his height; a leader, a father, and a world builder. Dawn also continues the tragic story of Koba (Toby Kebbell in a mo-cap performance as compelling as that of Serkis), an Ape with a similar backstory to Caesar’s, who was unfortunately tortured and who had no background of the loving human family which Caesar enjoyed in Rise. Caesar’s trust in, and loyalty to, humans, due to his loving human upbringing (and role in the ultimate downfall of mankind), creates a chasm between Caesar and Koba, and sparks a war with the human survivors and a battle for Ape leadership. Koba is second only to Dr. Zaius in the original film as the greatest antagonist in the series. Like all the best villains, Koba is smart, believes profoundly in his cause, and audiences can understand where he’s coming from and empathize with the position he takes, even if it results in tragedy. Dawn is filled with singular spectacle, massive set pieces, game-changing visual effects, and a triple-A score by Michael Giacchino. It’s got all the hallmarks of a major tentpole studio blockbuster in that regard. But what sets Dawn, and indeed all Apes films, apart is the somber tone and the profound explorations of human nature, the consequences of violence, the power and pitfalls of religion, and the heavy crown of leadership. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is frankly one of the greatest blockbusters of my lifetime and builds a strong case for the Planet of the Apes franchise being one of the greatest series in all of cinema.

      @Ed_Travis on Xitter

      Austin Vashaw

      This trek back through the entire Planet of the Apes series (by which I mean that I’ve rewatched all of them, not just our Two Cents picks) has been really rewarding, and charging through them in quick succession has not only been a lot of fun but reinforced a lot of the lore, themes, and continuity in a clearer light.

      Consider, if you will, a thought exercise: have you ever watched a great film or show and thought about some tangential aspect of it, “I would watch a whole movie or series about that”? Like Magneto hunting Nazi war criminals, Springfield’s Police Department, or Indy and Short Round’s adventures in Hong Kong. The current generation of Apes films are very much that kind of wish fulfillment for any fan of the original franchise who ever wanted to see how that future came about. And while Rise holds more affection in my heart, I certainly won’t fault any of my colleagues who hold Dawn the superior regard. It’s a stunning sequel, centering on Caesar as its protagonist and the fragile line between peace and war as its theme.

      The embittered Koba (Toby Kebbell) is rightly heralded as and incredible ape character and performance, a picture of rage and sadness twisted into a vengeful vendetta. But I would also equally call out the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), whose soulful eyes, inquisitive presence, and loyalty to Caesar make him not only a lovable character, but, as another Apes film once coined the term, the keeper of Caesar’s conscience.

      But it’s the tragedy of Dawn that’s ultimately its most compelling and resonant idea: two races inevitably marching toward conflict because of the offenses of a small minority of bad agents ruled by malice or fear, but whose actions cause mistrust, tragedy and woe for all.

      @VforVashaw on Xitter


      Our next block of films pays respect to legendary independent producer and director Roger Corman, who passed away in May. We’ve covered many of his films before, including here on Two Cents, but for Cormania, we’ve curated an eclectic lineup of films that we feel say something about him not only as a producer and director, but as a rebel and visionary as well.

      Upcoming picks:
      June 3 – THE INTRUDER
      June 10 – PIRANHA
      June 17 – FANTASTIC FOUR
      June 24 – LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960) 

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