It took 10 years worth of work to help Rupert Wyatt reboot the ailing Planet of the Apes franchise. In the clunkily-titled Rise of the Planet of the Apes audiences saw a blockbuster hit arrive almost unannounced in the summer of 2011 and blow critics and audiences away with its heart-felt story-telling and dazzling motion-capture special effects.
Fast-forward three years and director Matt Reeves, best known for Cloverfield, takes over the reigns for the equally clunkily-titled Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. But don't let the title fool you; this is every bit the worthy successor to the original that you could hope for.
Picking up a decade after the previous film, Dawn focuses on the growing society of apes lead by their super-smart saviour Caesar (Andy Serkis). The sudden arrival of the long-thought dead humans lead by do-gooder Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his wife Ellie (Keri Russell) and son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) leads to fear and mistrust from within the camp, notably from former clinical trial ape Koba (Toby Kebbell). As tensions rise on both sides, Malcolm and Caesar do their best to maintain control of their groups.
The allegories of trust, power and insecurity are perfectly encapsulated in Caesar and Koba. One the chosen leader, the other an upstart with revenge on his mind. The fact that the humans are sidelined to mere bystanders in their own history is testament to the work of WETA and the motion capture actors.
There has taken a huge leap in special effects from WETA workshop, the creative minds made famous by The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Caesar, Koba and friends are so photo-realistic that it is easy to forget that they're not real. This combined with the continued stellar physical acting by Andy Serkis and newcomer Toby Kebbell lead to an astounding achievement in visual design. It feels as close to actual reality as effects have ever been and the unnerving details on the faces denoting emotion are sublime.
But this is not a glossy showcase with nothing going on behind the sheen. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a story and a ripplingly thrilling one to begin with. The film is at it's best when it focuses on Caesar's created society. There's almost no speech before the arrival of humanity and we are taken on a wordless hunt that is utterly engrossing. While we're learning about this brave new world our interest is peaked and the story has room to negotiate and setup the final acts.
At its heart is the growing distrust between the apes and the humans, and while you may expect an all-out action bonanza, Reeves holds back this feast, presumably for fear of overshadowing the tension and drama that he has instilled previously. Unfortunately it proves to be the first proper misstep in the film.
There is a slow-growth to the story that suggests it's holding back the full-on ape apocalypse for the next instalment. This sort of franchise-building is frustrating at the best of times and here it really puts a damper on what appeared to be a swelling historical epic. This frustration becomes almost unbearable toward the end as the narrative loses all flow, and is rescued only by the goodwill its created previously.
The scatter-gun approach to genre also doesn't quite work, with the introduction of elements of drama, historical epic, horror and action-adventure. There is a sense that it is desperately trying to recreate the moment in the original where Caesar speaks for the first time and the audiences jaws hit the ground. While it doesn't get there, it does have some beautiful cinematography, notable a spinning reverse dolly shot on top of a tank.
Dawn arrives with an up-swell of positive critical support similar to it's predecessor, but it lacks in the most important part; narrative drive. We know there can't be peace, we know that Apes will inherit the Earth and we know at some point an astronaut will kneel on a beach screaming about the stupidity of man. The first film was given license because it was so far removed from its own future that it happily and rightfully focuses on the major character, Caesar.
It should really have driven the point home, launched the war and ended with the enslavement. Instead it decided to rehash the will-they-won't-they get along angle and it drags the final acts into something of a dead-end. This is not to say that it's a bad film, in fact you wish for a time when all blockbusters attempt something this bold and expansive, but the fact remains that we should be closer to Planet of the Apes than we are. Instead we'll now have to sit through another Almost Planet of the Apes to get there.
It may lack the heart, focus and surprising poignancy of the original, but it's still a suitably impressive sequel full of outstanding performances and a bold attempt to create something different from the tired blockbuster cliches.