The premiere was Thursday in San Francisco, the trades have posted their reviews, and we begin with the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy: “A gripping account of inter-species conflict, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes manages to do at least three things exceptionally well that are hard enough to pull off individually: Maintain a simmering level of tension without let-up for two hours, seriously improve on a very good first entry in a franchise and produce a powerful humanistic statement using a significantly simian cast of characters. In the annals of sequels, Dawn is to Rise of the Planet of the Apes what The Empire Strikes Back was to Star Wars—it’s that much better…. Whatever anyone might think about the film as a whole, there is no question that Andy Serkis gives the most expressive, soulful, deeply felt performance of a non-human character the big screen has ever offered as the mature Caesar, the ape raised from childhood in captivity who now leads a band of a couple of thousand encamped in the Muir Woods north of San Francisco.”
Guy Lodge, writing for Variety, agrees that “this vivid, violent extension of humanoid ape Caesar’s troubled quest for independence bests its predecessor in nearly every technical and conceptual department…. The Apes franchise has always been a politically loaded one, and this latest entry states its left-wing credo in ways both allegorically implicit and bluntly direct. (You’d have to be pretty obtuse to miss the pro-gun-control subtext attached to misdeeds on both sides of the man-monkey battle.) While the previous film functioned as something of a cautionary tale against man’s destructive meddling with his environment, Dawn apportions blame a little more equally, as the beasts (introduced in a thrilling, technically jaw-dropping faceoff against a grizzly bear) are shown to be no less reckless an influence on the biosphere than their former superiors.”
“But none of the characters are very memorable and the allusions to issues such as ecology and racism are too vague to have much impact,” finds John Hazelton at Screen Daily. “Rather than developing those angles, director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) takes the film down familiar genre paths—previously trodden by Westerns, gangster films and zombie flicks—that provide few dramatic surprises.”
But for HitFix‘s Drew McWeeney, Dawn “is a film that digs deep, that challenges not only the notion of what a studio blockbuster looks like but also how sequels are supposed to work in a commercial world, a movie about real ideas with a spectacular sense of character and mood. Dawn is not just a good genre movie or a good summer movie. It’s a great science-fiction film, full-stop, and one of the year’s very best movies so far.”
At /Film, Russ Fischer‘s been gathering the now-standard first-impression tweets and Peter Sciretta writes: “The motion capture performances in this film are next level—you thought Andy Serkis’s Gollum was impressive? Wait until you see and feel the emotion inside these animal characters.”
Updates, 7/2: At the Playlist, Edward Davis has a batch of short films, collaborations between 20th Century Fox and Motherboard, VICE’s science and tech channel, that explain what all happened in the ten-year span between Rise and Dawn.
In short, “most of humanity has been wiped out by a virulent plague to which only 1 in 500 of our race is immune,” explains the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey. “Gaggles of survivors hang on by a thread, their resources all but extinguished.” As for Dawn: “There’s evident patience and intelligence to the filmmaking all over, as well as an engagement with genuine ideas about diplomacy, deterrence, law and leadership. However often it risks monkey-mad silliness, it’s impressively un-stupid. Virtuoso flourishes aside, not once does Reeves feel like he’s constructed a scene merely to flaunt how good the effects are.”
“The whole Planet of the Apes set-up has been ripe for metaphor—from slavery and Afro-American revolution to European conquest of the Americas, even the war on terror,” writes Steve Rose in the Guardian. “But mercifully, there’s no big subtext being troweled on here. If it resembles anything, it’s a Shakespearean tragedy, with its complex web of allegiances and weighty themes of revenge, mercy, loyalty, and, of course, what it means to be ‘human.'”
Time Out‘s Tom Huddleston: “The effects are nothing short of jawdropping: rarely has CGI been employed with such dexterity and depth…. The complete absence of a decent female character, whether human or ape, leaves it all feeling a bit punchy and macho. But perhaps that’s appropriate for this muscular tale of social collapse and base animal urges.”
Update, 7/7: “No Apes director has gone through the looking glass to explore the human condition as ambitiously as Matt Reeves,” writes Bill Desowitz at the top of his interview with Reeves at Thompson on Hollywood, where Anne Thompson writes that Dawn “manages that tricky balance between scope and intimacy, action scale and emotional relationships in close-up.”
Update, 7/8: Greg Keyes’s book Firestorm “utilizes the somewhat antiquated but still standard movie novelization format,” writes the Playlist‘s Kevin Jagernauth, and “allows it function not just as a retelling of the film, but as a substantive add on to the experience. Sure, you don’t have to read the book to enjoy the film (or vice versa), but for those looking to get a bit more out of the blockbuster before they see it, or afterward, Firestorm exceeds expectations handily.”
Updates, 7/10: In the New York Times, A.O. Scott notes that “this is not Dusk of the Planet of the Humans. The spectacle of yet another desperate population, huddled together in the wake of catastrophe to await the next zombie, alien, robot or monster attack, would be unlikely to inspire much excitement. The real interest lies across the battered Golden Gate Bridge, in Marin County, where our evolutionary cousins… have built their own civilization. The sylvan, simian Athens in the Muir Woods is a remarkable achievement and an important part of what makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes… the best of this summer’s large-scale, big-studio franchise movies.”
But for Nick Schager, writing for SF Weekly, “Dawn is a sluggishly grim affair, and one that resolutely avoids any meaningful racial and cultural subtext, instead content to fall back on clichés about hope and distrust, peace and conflict.”
“This is a summer blockbuster contingent on grand bargains, tactical retreats, and a ferocious, inevitable shock-and-awe campaign,” writes Steve Macfarlane in Slant. “What the film serves up is neither the all-monkey havoc promised by the pent-up final minutes of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, nor is it a rebottling of the pseudo-intellectual charm of the original series. It’s both.”
“The movie ends on a surprisingly somber note, particularly for a summer blockbuster,” notes the Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek. “Human beings, as always, are their own worst enemies, but an ape utopia isn’t so easy to achieve, either.”
And Time‘s Richard Corliss notes that Dawn is “a war movie that dares ask its audience to root for the peacemakers.” More from Simon Abrams (Nashville Scene), Jason Bailey (Flavorwire), Marjorie Baumgarten (Austin Chronicle, 3.5/5), Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 3/5), A.A. Dowd (AV Club, B-), Jordan Hoffman (Film.com, 9/10), Rodrigo Perez (Playlist, B+/A-), Keith Phipps (Dissolve, 4/5), Jordan Raup (Film Stage), David Sims (Wire) and Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times).
Updates, 7/11: “I’ve seen a few critics insist that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an allegory for the Israel-Palestinean conflict,” notes Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com, “and certain echoes of that real world tragedy may indeed be present; but for the most part, the film’s allusions struck me as more general, like the contours of a fable intended to spark dreams and eventually lead to wisdom.”
“This is one beautifully made movie,” adds Sean Burns. “Director Matt Reeves doesn’t just have an eye for compositions. Every camera choice here has meaning and thematic weight. You could watch this film with the sound turned off and it would be just as engrossing, probably better.”
“There are decent, tolerant souls among human and ape alike, and there are also suspicious, warmongering bigots,” writes Christopher Orr for the Atlantic. “I’d like to say there are many unexpected twists along the way, but the script hews rather scrupulously to formula.”
In the New Republic, David Thomson traces the history of apes in the movies.
Updates, 7/12: If the ending of Rise “conveyed the heady rush of liberatory zeal we associate with the French Revolution,” writes Slate‘s Dana Stevens, “the current installment… documents the French Revolution’s chilling second phase: the Reign of Terror, when the fiercest zealots of the revolution became among the most rigid enforcers of its new and increasingly bloody rule of law. Like that second revolutionary phase, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is something of a comedown, being considerably grimmer, more violent, and less idealistic than its predecessor.”
“Dawn has the same strengths as Rise,” argues the Stranger‘s Paul Constant. “The acting and special effects are just as good, if not better… And Dawn‘s plot is just as fastidiously constructed as Rise: This is a script that screenwriting teachers could use as a lesson-plan, with excellent delivery of exposition and a textbook structure that raises the stakes while never losing sight of its goals.”
Gretta Wilson for Film Comment: “The original 1968 film played out our similarities to our simian cousins in a deadpan critique of human superiority and creationism—the sort of pessimistic, dialogue-heavy parable its original writer, Rod Serling, made his career out of. While the ensuing four films became increasingly esoteric and campy, 2011’s surprisingly good Rise of the Planet of the Apes emulated its ancestor’s statement-heavy style in a Frankenstein-esque man-creates-monster origin story. The newest film takes a step away from that lineage, favoring the explosive fun of a summer blockbuster over cultural exposé.”
“Matt Reeves’s skills as a director, and orchestrator of talents, show a fantastic advance from Cloverfield and the fine Let Me In,” writes Ray Pride in Newcity Film. “In the wet, wooded, crepuscular reaches of the forest (largely shot on location in British Columbia and Louisiana), Reeves, production designer James Chinlund (The Avengers, Requiem for a Dream) and their cohort of CGI technicians create believable, lived-in, desiccated landscapes from which a new world emerges.”
For the Stranger‘s Kathy Fennessy, “the end doesn’t satisfy the way it should, since it’s more about setting the stage for the next film than bringing this one to a close, though I like the way it starts out as a western before seguing into a war picture. Also, Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole ends up playing a small role in the scenario. If Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does nothing else, I hope it encourages more people to read the book—which David Fincher intended to adapt at one point—and put some money in the coffers of this very deserving artist.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Steven Rea has the story behind the inclusion of Black Hole and points us to this clip:
Updates, 7/14: “Ultimately, it’s an uneven but admirable attempt at injecting both formal and thematic intelligence into a blockbuster,” argues Adam Cook in the Notebook.
Anthony Lane in the New Yorker: “What is missing from the film is wit—the deep wit that comes from playing off species and environments against each other. It was much more satisfying to watch a mob of apes swarm darkly through the gleaming office of a biotech firm, in the previous movie, than it is to see them pass from the dank, shadowy menace of the woods to the equally dank shadows of a ruined San Francisco.”
The Film Doctor “was unfavorably struck by the movie’s many manipulative tender scenes.”
But “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does its predecessor one better by asking us actually to think through the moral and philosophical implications of a post-human world,” suggests Jed Mayer at Press Play.
Updates, 7/16: “Let’s face it, high-minded ideas are all very well, but can they compete with a chimp on horseback firing an Uzi?” Four out of five stars from Time Out‘s Tom Huddleston. More from David D’Arcy and Paul Fairclough.
For Esquire, Jennifer M. Wood gets Reeves talking about his six favorite science fiction films.
Updates, 7/19: At Reverse Shot, Adam Nayman finds Dawn to be “an evolutionary curiosity: a film that is at once markedly superior and considerably less satisfying than its predecessor…. Simply put: there are no surprises in this movie, formally, dramatically or thematically…. Rise vaulted heroically over a very low bar; within its deceptively spacious blockbuster structure, Dawn scrapes the ceiling but still feels constrained. Its careful construction could have been sacrificed for a little more genuine craziness. To paraphrase George Taylor’s anguished cries in Planet of the Apes, it isn’t quite a madhouse, and that’s too bad.”
At the Quietus, Mat Colegate asks that we “imagine my unparalleled joy when upon viewing the trailer to Matt Reeves’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes… I saw the sight that cinema has been awaiting since the Lumière Brothers made the audience flee the oncoming train: that’s right, fellow thrill seekers, an ape, on horseback, firing two heavy calibre machine guns AT THE SAME TIME. ‘This is an age of marvels!’ I stammered, holding back tears. ‘All the rest of this year’s cinema is void…’ It was quite the moment. And, upon watching the film in its entirety, I can confirm that it is still a jaw-droppingly audacious sequence, but that what surrounds it is mostly hokum of the lowest order.”
The Chicago Reader‘s J.R. Jones argues that “no one deserves more credit for keeping the original series going than Paul Dehn, the British poet and screenwriter (Goldfinger, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) who dreamed up the highly imaginative scenarios for the first three sequels.”
Update, 7/21: “There are, of course, some shortcomings,” writes Mark Kermode in the Observer. “The lack of decent female roles is depressing (anguished mothers are sidelined as the pace of the action increases), and I suspect that some of the wobblier visual elements will not age well; like all films built upon cutting-edge technology, the danger of accelerated obsolescence is very real…. What redeems it all is the sense that the film-makers take their subject matter seriously and imagine their audience to be as sentient as their simian screen counterparts.”