Dawn of the Planet of the Apes review: A slam-bang apocalyptic western

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
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Director: Matt Reeves
Cert: 12A
Genre: Sci-Fi
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Toby Kebbell
Running Time: 2 hrs 10 mins

A recent video in The Onion site dared film critics, when reviewing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to break sinews in their search for pretentious metaphors and highbrow allusions in the summer's most chin-stroking blockbuster. We are happy to oblige.

Matt Reeves's cracking follow-up to 2011's very satisfactory first reboot speeds us through the near-annihilation of the human species via viral infection and on towards an ape colony in the forests outside San Francisco. You don't need to have read Heart of Darkness to detect the whiffs of Joseph Conrad. Indeed, the atmosphere is closer to Apocalypse Now. There are horrors upriver. But the real horrors lurk within our own psyches. Or something.

Unsure if any humans survive, Caesar, leader of the apes, has begun to develop a nascent civilisation with his fellow primates. The uneasy stability is shifted when a party of men, venturing from the city in search of a hydroelectric dam, come across an ape, panic and discharge a pistol into his flesh.

The apes later cross the Golden Gate to suggest (contemporary allusion alert!) a sort of two-state solution: people and simians will develop their civilisations at a distance. But the lure of that damn proves too tasty for the naked apes to exist.

In truth, the philosophical foundations of the new series are only marginally sturdier than those of the horrible Transformers franchise. It seems that, within the community of higher apes, we are all more like one another than we might like to admit. We all love our children. We are all prone to violence.

Unlike Mr Conrad, the makers of the Apes movies believe that society is divided into good primates and bad primates. Played once more by a motion-captured Andy Serkis, Caesar is a good ape: he seeks the best for his community and is capable of reason. Given life by the worried Jason Clarke, Malcolm is a good human: he wants to bring electricity to the city and encourage amity with the chimps.

Gary Oldman's messianic destructive character is a bad man. The creature known as Koba is a very bad ape indeed. (We suspect Keri Russell plays a good woman, but, as is so often the case with female characters in the summer, her part is so underwritten it's hard to tell for sure.)

Yet, for all that, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes still registers as a triumph. Forget that Conrad baloney. What we have here is a great frontier western of the old school. San Francisco has become Fort Apache. The ape community groans under the same stresses that played out among so many Native American tribes in those earlier movies. Caesar is the wise old chief who seeks accommodation with the advancing settlers. Koba is the hot-headed brave who craves only blood.

We've come to expect digital marvels from our summer entertainments, but the folk behind the new Apes really have excelled themselves. Despite being shrouded in much darkness (more sepulchral still if you choose the unnecessary 3D version), the film manages to distinguish between its cast of apes and grant each visual character. The opening and closing shots offer symmetric punctuation to a story that is complete enough to satisfy while still opening itself up to an inevitable and entirely welcome third episode.

By then, we may – remembering The Onion's inculcations – have come up with some complex explanation of the series' political leanings. We assume they are nice liberal stories. But Dawn does seem to argue the virtues of a benign dictatorship and – nodding to right-wing paranoiacs everywhere – it most definitely features a war triggered by a "false-flag" incident.

Oh, just lie back and savour the apocalyptic fun.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist