For a summer blockbuster, Dawn has a bleak outlook. Every human that appears onscreen has lost nearly everyone they know to the epidemic, and they carry the resulting grief with them. Malcolm can barely get through an inspiring speech without his voice cracking. With so much emotional weight to carry, rationality isn’t anyone’s strong suit. Koba carries the same trauma thanks to his pre-freedom tenure as a lab test subject. A bonobo belonging to an inherently peaceful species, he’s had all that instinct drilled out of him, leaving him a scarred and disfigured husk ready to wipe out those who did him wrong. The masterstroke of Reeves and the writing team is to muddy all these motivations to the point where some parties are wrong but they’re wrong for understandable reasons.
If one of the two sides can live, however, it’s fine that the apes are likely destined for victory. The least interesting ape is more watchable than the most interesting human. Some of that is the seamless technological marvel that these films are, but the apes are also better written and better acted. Their civilization is more compelling than the humans’ crumbling one. Just watching them hunt in the opening scene is thrilling. Serkis is unbelievably good in the role of Caesar, and Kebbell gives him a run for his money, particularly in infiltration scenes where he puts on a disarming clown show for human guards. On the human side, Oldman emerges as an effective, reedy-voiced leader unafraid of picking up a bazooka when that’s what’s called for, but no one else rises above what the plot needs them to do. In a similarity between sides, neither Malcolm’s family nor Caesar’s family is given anything to do. Poor Judy Greer, given to playing flimsy maternal characters in summer films like Ant-Man and Jurassic World, finds herself doing the same here, but in the mo-cap suit as Caesar’s wife Cornelia. At least in Ant-Man, I can recognize that Greer’s considerable talents are being wasted.
There are a lot of characters to service in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Reeves and co only manage to get to some of them. They do succeed in the most important aspects of the film, namely the central conflicts between the humans and the apes and between Caesar and Koba. Dawn constructs a cohesive world out of the fallout from Rise, while also ably setting the emotional and physical stage for the final act of the trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes. B