I would have been fine with this movie if it completely lost the big showdown in the third act and just had the humans and apes overcome their differences and start building a life around each other.
Not that I mind the way the movie turned out, it's probably the greatest blockbuster this year.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" stars Andy Serkis as intelligent chimpanzee Caesar, leader of an emerging civilization of apes, and Jason Clarke as one of the leaders of a group of humans trying to reestablish theirs.
This movie is a rare thing. In these days of impressive CGI work, few movies manage to give you the feeling that you just witnessed some oldschool movie magic. "Dawn" puts itself in the good company of movies like "Star Wars", "Jurassic Park" and most recently "Gravity", movies that just drew you in and wouldn't let go of you. The "Jurassic Park" comparison is perhaps the most valid one, as it is the apes rather than the humans that leave you speechless, trying to gather up your jaw from the floor.
The movie knows this and puts most of the focus on them. This leads to comparably little screentime for Jason Clark, Gary Oldman and the other human actors, which has been criticised because it does make them slightly underdeveloped. Jason Clarkes character has been described as "functional", which I find to be an understatement. He plays a very interesting character in my opinion, he just happens to be something that is somewhere between main and supporting character.
An actual flaw, albeit a small one, is that what we do learn about the human characters and to some extent the apes as well, comes in the form of clunky exposition dialogue. With the Apes that's not a problem, because just hearing them speak is awesome itself, but dialogue along the lines of "Hey, you had a wife, right? She died, didn't she? It was the symian flu, wasn't it?" (exaggerated) could have used some polishing. There are some moments in this movie that show how it should be done, one involving Gary Oldman and a tablet PC.
But enough of the humans, what of the actual stars of this movie, the titular apes? For the first time, Andy Serkis gets top billing, and boy does he deserve it. Once more, Andy Serkis spawns debate over whether he should or should not be able to get a best actor nomination for Motion Capture work. He should, for multiple reasons. First, the sheer accomplishment of portraying a non-human character with such credibility. Serkis goes several steps further than just supplying human facial expressions and applying them onto a symian face in post-production. He moves like a chimpanzee, adds the evolution that the ALZ has sparked in Caesar and creates a whole new species from this.
Second, the character of Caesar itself is so well realized. His arc goes from being raised by loving humans, becoming a "Che Guevara" style revolutionary to being the leader of an emerging civilization of apes. He struggles between his sympathies for humans, keeping the apes under control and his own family.
Caesar also has to worry about discord in his own camp, impersonated by Toby Kebbels Koba, the ape from the first movie that was kept captive and being experimented on for years. Koba has a burning hatred for humans, which causes him to lose his respect for Caesar when he cooperates. He is a fearsome antagonist, not only because of his heavy facial scars. You also feel a maliciousness and intellect in him that make him so dangerous. There is a genuinely chilling moment when he stumbles upon humans, plays a circus ape for a moment and then goes on his way. His facial expression changes from fun cajoling circus ape to murderous warrior in a flash and you feel exactly how close the two humans just came to a brutal death.
Which brings us to the violence in this movie. Don't worry, it's not the bloody, gory type of violence, but it hit home anyway. It packs such a punch because we really care about the combatants in all the major engagements. When apes and humans fight I found myself longing for peace, cringing at every casualty. For any fight scene, the emotional core is the most important thing, so the audience can feel that there are stakes involved. "Dawn" has that down to a science, which is why some of the action scenes in this movie might be the best we've seen all year.
Finally, Matt Reeves deserves mentioning. His decision to put the actors into the woods instead of a green-screen pays off immensely, as the lighting and surroundings feel so natural and add credibility to the apes themselves.
Overall, this is definitely the best blockbuster we've had this year, even beating "Edge of Tomorrow" and "The Winter Soldier", both amazing movies. Watch it if you haven't already, if you have, watch it again.
Also, check out Cinemartians review over here.