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Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Set ten years after a genetically superior Caesar led his fellow apes off to start a new way of life far from human reach; Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a sequel full of action and tension let down by a lack of emotional punch.

Some minor spoilers ahead.

Those who watched the mid-credits scene of Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 surprise hit will have seen the havoc that was about to unfold by the outbreak of a virus deadly to humans, caused by the same experimental drug that led to Caesar’s super-intelligence. Fast forward a decade and humans are on the verge of extinction; only a small pocket still remain in California living a very basic way of life.

There’s no sign of James Franco’s Will or Freida Pinto’s Caroline; presumably both killed off long ago by the virus. Step forward our new heroes, in the form of Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his fragmented family consisting of partner Ellie (Keri Russell) and son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). They, along with other members of their tribe, need to fix a dam that will finally give the humans back a power source, but they come across an unexpected problem in the form of Caesar and the ape colony that aren’t particularly fond of human interaction. A fragile peace is initially brokered, but eventually the two sides struggle for power, which leads to war as the species battle for dominance.

It’s not just inter-species struggles that are in play in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; there’s also some great battles for power within the ape camp, as many disagree with Caesar’s thinking. The tension built in not only the human/ape strained relationships but the ape/ape friction is one of the highlights of the film, along with, of course, superb special effects and a film that is stunning to look at.

Andy Serkis is back as the king-of-the-apes and, as you would expect, puts in a stellar performance: his ability to express so much of himself in his characters is unparalleled. Despite Serkis’ great work, the levels of emotional connection reached in Rise of the Planet of the Apes are simply not reached here, and this comes down to the lack of human interaction in the first half of the film. In Rise we saw Caesar’s fiercely protective side brought out for the humans time and time again and when he leaves Franco’s character to start his new home, the strength of the relationship was obvious. In Reeves’ sequel this same heartfelt link between ape and human isn’t evidenced until a couple of scenes much later on in the film and doesn’t hit home to the same extent. The human family of Clarke, Russell and Smit-McPhee also emit a distinct lack of chemistry as a unit, which makes it difficult to root for either side. The final flaw in the emotional structure of the film is the subtitling; without Franco available to interpret the apes, all their nuanced facial moments and gestures are written out for us, taking us out of the moment once and for all.

Special effects and CGI can only do so much for a film that lacks so much depth, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a fun Saturday night ride – just don’t expect anything going on underneath.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is in UK cinemas on 17th July 2014.

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