RECAP: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014): Matt Reeves

Ten years have passed since the outbreak of the Simian Flu, a disease that killed at least 99.8% of human beings. That makes life pretty good for climatically adapted chimpanzees living atop Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California.

An opening montage retraces the spread of the Simian Flu shown at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this time using red lines across a map. News reports trace the downfall of civilization, even in America! Gasp! It CAN happen here.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Charged with a virus making them highly intelligent, assorted apes led by Caesar are a genus divided against itself, and they must fight a scrappy band of humans to survive. 

Hero (5/10)

Hundreds of apes live under the benevolent rule of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the ape who freed them and made them as intelligent as humans. Caesar has a wife and two sons, one named Blue Eyes and nearly an adult, the other born days ago. “Makes me think how far we’ve come,” he tells his closest friend Maurice (Karin Konoval).

It’s been two years since the apes have seen any sign of humans, but that’s about to change when a human wandering near the ape area shoots a young ape named Ash.

The apes swing into action, Caesar at the helm, surrounding a half dozen humans in the area hoping to restart a hydroelectric plant to power the human compound in downtown San Francisco.

Tense from the start, Caesar stares down the humans and screams at them, “GO!” The humans obey, but not for long. Caesar feels compelled to march every ape into San Fran to confront the nascent opponents and try for a one chance for peace.

Caesar, riding a horse, speaks to the humans. “Apes do not want war,” he says in his crusty speech pattern, “but will fight if we must.” Caesar returns a sketchbook left behind by the humans as a peace offering. “Do not come back.”

Guess who immediately comes back? Humans. Specifically Malcolm (Jason Clarke) the leader of the team trying to restart the power plant. Malcolm knows that Caesar is “more than just an ape,” and he’ll try to forge interspecies peace.

The fearless Malcolm, trying to forge peace with speaking apes he first learned of a few days ago.

Caesar agrees. Why help humans, one ape asks? “They seem desperate,” Caesar answers. They are. That makes them dangerous, and in misunderstanding this Caesar fails his people.

Caesar, the ape who has seen humanity’s admirable side more than any ape under his care, trusts them more than any other ape. That trusts breaks when Caesar finds a gun stowed away where none should be. This after the apes saved a human’s life and helped them clear the dam to restart the electricity. He casts the humans away.

Caesar’s lack of trust is healed later, when Malcolm and company get the dam working and leave. Following this and Koba’s betrayal, Caesar understands that some apes cannot be trusted, just as some humans can be. Human medicine heals Caesar’s mate, for instance, and surgery saves his life after Koba (Toby Kebbell) shoots him.

Out of the picture for a day, Caesar loses the apes to Koba, his friend-turned-adversary. Despite a gunshot wound, Caesar challenges Koba to a final duel for ape supremacy. They have argued and sparred before, this time it will be to the death. Who will prevail?

Villain (7/10)

The first rule of ape-dom is “Ape not kill ape.” That rule will be tested by movie’s end.

Caesar is the unquestioned leader of the apes. His best fighter is a scarred (mentally and physically) ape named Koba, who made a brief appearance in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Koba first appears to save the life of Caesar and son from a bear. The old men laugh together after the kill. Soon, though, humans will reappear and tear apart the friendship.

From the moment the humans are seen (and one shoots an ape), Koba wants war. Slowly he will drop his subservient attitude, bringing his own disciples with him to lead the apes.

While Caesar allows the humans to work on fixing a dam far north of San Francisco, Koba hatches his own schemes. He does not trust humans. Malcolm, the human-ape ambassador, believes that in restarting the dam the humans will leave the apes alone. Koba believes differently. “Human lies!” he shouts for all to hear.

Caesar knows the apes and humans have one chance for peace. Let them do human work. Koba points at his disfiguring scars. “Human work,” he repeats as he points to each one. Caesar dislikes the questioning of authority, and Koba asks for forgiveness.

Caesar states that from humans Koba learned hate…and nothing else. That hate fuels his distrust and his insubordination. Koba and two acolytes follow the humans to the Fort Point armory beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. They find a massive cache of weapons the humans test drive.

Koba enjoy killing human.

Koba believes the humans will attack them, and he seeks a preemptive strike with Koba in charge. His plan is a good one. Koba is mum to Caesar about the weapons cache. Returning from San Francisco one night, he targets one of the humans working on the dam and kills him. Then, using the human’s gun and hat, he shoots Caesar, frames the human, and sets fire to the ape sanctuary. In less than a minute he has assumed leadership and started a war with the humans.

Fighting “for Caesar” in name only, Koba leads the successful attack on the human compound. He orders an ape to strike down a human begging for his life. When the ape refuses, because “Caesar wouldn’t want” the senseless murder of humans, Koba drags the ape to an upper floor and throws him to his death. “Apes follow Koba now,” Koba says.

Koba orders the apes to herd humans into cages. “You ape prisoner now,” Koba announces to the humans. “Now you will know life in cage.” Koba starts a war to eradicate the human race for vengeance.

America is an ape nation now.

Koba is either as intelligent as he is hateful or more so. His plan to lead the apes is perfect, felled only because he shot Caesar in the arm and not the chest. Koba imprisons those apes most loyal to Caesar, but NOT his son Blue Eyes. Koba tries to bend Blue Eyes to his ways, knowing that would add to his legitimacy. He could have killed the chimp, but makes the riskier gamble because he assumes Caesar is dead.

In the end, Koba’s hate blinds him to a final blow from Caesar. Joker-like, he relies on Caesar, knowing he’ll have to break his one rule. Caesar one-ups Batman, denying Koba his ape-ness when he kills him.

Action/Effects (9/10)

After the apes show up at the human compound, the humans prepare to fight. They unbox the guns left behind at Fort Point, but it’s the apes that are first to use the powerful weapons.

Koba, through subterfuge, seizes control of the ape colony and orders an attack. Filled with rage, Koba doesn’t lead a half-assed strike–it’s total war.

Apes scout the human compound before they attack it.

Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), leader of the human colony of survivors, hears of the armory raid and orders the alarm sounded. Anyone with a rifle lines up behind protection above the large metal doors that protect the compound. “We are survivors,” Dreyfus tells them, and whatever emerges from the fog will never breach the doors.

The humans look through the fog obscuring most of California St. It’s not long before a line of horse-riding chimps burst from the fog, guns blazing. Every ape shoots at the human line above the tall doors, sending them backward. Quickly the humans recover, firing two rockets at the ape line. Koba and Blue Eyes lose their mounts and scurry for cover.

Rusting cars provide cover for apes, who quickly lose their nerve. Koba didn’t come out here to turn tail and run. He knocks another ape from its mount, picks up a second machine gun, shouts at his compatriots, and restarts the charge with terrifying screams of rage.

Did I imagine this exact image as a nine-year-old? I did.

Koba, insane with hate, leaps through the flames like a demon, and he looks like one too. A bus explodes, killing several apes and immolating many more.

From behind the apes comes the cannon fire of a tank. The humans cheer, but their symbolic victory is short-lived. A terrific shot plants the camera on the turret behind the gunner’s position. The tank rumbles toward the human compound as the turret rotates slowly.

The humans got a tank working again.

Koba, incensed, leaps onto the tank. He beats the gunner and throws him away. The tank fires a shell at an old storefront that explodes. Koba learns what’s happening. He descends into tank and kills the driver, sending the tank crashing into the front doors. The apes are inside the human home, wreaking havoc.

This sequence supersedes the others in the first two Apes movies. Massive explosions, a tank, and a chimpanzee carrying two machine guns charging on a horse through fire. Yes, as badass as it sounds.

The effects work pioneered in Rise sharpens in Dawn. Many more apes are onscreen, hundreds at a time, and they all need rendering. Caesar’s face seems more nuanced than in his first film. In his ten years as ape leader, Caesar has let the ease of life rest on him, but the newness of his second son adds fear to his negotiations with the humans.

The incomparable Andy Serkis back at it.

Sidekicks (2/8)

One human works more than the others to make peace with the apes. Malcolm, whose wife died in the previous decade but teenaged son survived, now has a girlfriend in Ellie (Keri Russell), a former Centers for Disease Control doctor who lost her daughter after the flu outbreak.

Malcolm wants peace. He’ll ignore all decorum to get it. After Caesar orders the humans not to return to ape territory, Malcolm immediately returns to ape territory. A big risk that pays off by convincing Caesar to let them work on the dam.

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Ellie saves Caesar’s life and his mate’s life with doctor skills.

Malcolm is not afraid, a symptom of desperation. Our back against the wall, humans will do anything to survive. Malcolm has survived a barbaric decade, and with the survivors running out of fuel, they could slip back to it. Malcolm won’t allow it, and that’s why he ignores ape warnings to stay out.

Malcolm quickly identifies Caesar as smarter than the average chimp. He and his family save Caesar’s life, and that’s enough to prevent them from being locked in a cage by Koba or blown up by the humans trying to eradicate all apes.

Henchmen (2/8)

A former soldier, Dreyfus leads the human survivors. With wispy hair and a bullhorn, Dreyfus barely contains his fear as the world he’s helped maintain discovers it’s an ape world now.

“We’ve been through hell together,” Dreyfus says to his underlings after the apes riding horses visit them. He touts the arsenal left behind by FEMA and the need to “reclaim the world we lost.” With the damn dam working they can contact the outside world, rebuild what once was.
Gary Oldman speaks much dialogue through megaphone.

A startling attack derails Dreyfus’s plans. Forced to flee underground, Dreyfus stumbles upon an idea–detonate plastic explosives beneath a skyscraper supporting Koba and most of the smart apes, returning humans to their rightful place atop the animal pyramid.

Dreyfus puts his money where his mouth is, sacrificing his life. “I’m saving the human race,” he says, finally.

The other bad human is a scared former utility employee named Carver (Kirk Acevedo). This guy blames the apes for the Simian Flu. Dumber than he is scared, or more scared than dumb, Carver shoots an ape at first sight. He brings a shotgun to the dam worksite after Caesar forbade them.

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The worst guy

Carver is nearly crushed to death inside the dam, and the apes save him, but that doesn’t change his mind. He distrusts them, and he was right to some extent, because a rogue ape (Carver’s equivalent) beats him to death. Good riddance.

Stunts (1/6)

The CGI-heavy film avoids stunt work by necessity. That’s fine. I’m giving a point for the copious guns fired.

Climax (3/6)

Caesar, flush with some meds and his loyal apes behind him, follows Malcolm into the city through the subway tunnels. A few straggling humans force them to split up, and that’s when the struggle gets real.

Malcolm finds that Dreyfus is still alive, and he’s wired the tower above with C4, to kill all the apes in one blow. Caesar, meanwhile goes to street level and then struggles as he climbs the tower that Koba has made his seat of power.

Two power struggles ensue, intercut, between Malcolm and Dreyfus, and Caesar and Koba. Malcolm, numb to killing all the apes, calmly walks toward a rifle, picks it up, and points it at his friends. He doesn’t want this, but he wants to kill the apes less.

Atop the tower, Caesar limps onto a platform to challenge Koba, who holds his rifle. They speak to each other. “Apes follow Koba now,” Koba says. “Follow Koba to war,” Caesar says. “Apes together strong; Caesar weak.” “Koba weaker.”

Koba is mad and he kicks Caesar down a level. Caesar fights back and both land on loose scaffolding that collapses and slashes Koba’s torso. Koba grabs a piece of rebar and chases Caesar around until the latter finds an iron shield.

“Koba fight for ape,” Koba says, swinging his club. “Koba fight for Koba,” Caesar counters. Koba cracks the shield as Caesar says, “Koba belong in cage.” Caesar uses Koba’s rage against him, seizing his moment to punch Koba’s fresh wound.

Koba, his back to the wall, so to speak, brings down more scaffolding that breaks the floor. Both apes fall and grab dangling chains. That’s their thing.

Way down below the humans have a standoff. Dreyfus asks Malcolm if he’s out of his fucking mind. “They’re animals!” he screams. Well, so are humans.  Dreyfus grabs the detonator. He’s contacted an army base north of the Bay Area. They are coming.

If the troops are coming, why the rush to kill the apes? Why not give Malcolm the time he asks for? Perhaps he’s right?

Doesn’t matter who’s right, only who’s desperate. Dreyfus is desperate. “I’m saving the human race.” Then he blows himself up. Way to squelch a sequel check, Gary.

Malcolm somehow scurries to safety. The tower above sways. The construction crane that’s stood untouched for 10+ years tumbles. Koba and Caesar swing to opposite sides of the tower. Several apes are crushed or fall to death.

Koba finds another gun and sprays bullets at the remaining apes. Anyone loyal to Caesar is a target. Any ape is a target. Caesar spends the interlude saving apes stuck beneath detritus. They won’t forget. Caesar watches his brethren under attack. Enraged, he leaps onto Koba just as Koba leapt onto the bear early in the film.

Koba, sent flying, grips a broken beam by one arm. Caesar stands over him. Koba knows Caesar will have to break his one rule. “Ape not kill ape,” he says to Caesar.

Caesar grips Koba’s arm. “You are not ape,” he says, and releases him. That’s a nice legal workaround there, Caesar. You get more human by the day.

Caesar reunites with his family. He speaks to Malcolm for a final time. “I thought we had a chance,” Malcolm says. “I did too,” Caesar echoes. He goes on: “War has already begun. Ape started war. Human will not forgive.” 

The last embrace of ape and human before the planet goes full ape.

As dawn rises, Caesar’s face hardens. Bring on the war.

Jokes (0/4)

I don’t think I laughed at all during Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. 

Setting (2/4)

Caesar and the apes enjoy a cliff-top paradise overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Surrounded by felled trees that resemble a beaver lodge, the compound abuts a waterfall tumbling into a misty forest. They couldn’t find better in the Congo.

Ape compound set

The humans live inside a compound enclosed by massive, two-story doors. Some semblance of the old world exist–tablets and books–amongst jugs of drinking water and open barrels for heating fires. They are trying to bridge the old world to the new.

Both locations are destroyed when the war starts, and both by apes led by Koba. The ape rampage continues into city hall, a glorious Beaux-Arts building of soaring ceilings and stone stairways about to be covered in blood of humans and ape.

Green abounds and I love green, so I’m biased.

Commentary (1/2)

Caesar lays out a theme. Caesar “always think ape better than human,” he says. “I see now how much like them we are.” Intelligent creatures, perhaps all creatures, are apt to break into factions. “Ape always seek strongest branch.” Caesar, shot in the arm, is not prepared to be the strongest branch, but he’s gonna give it a go.

Power and its application is a major theme. Political power for the apes and literal power for the humans. The human top brass discusses the “need” for electricity. Carver says that the apes’ advantage is that they need neither lights nor power. Well, humans survived for about two million years until the incandescent bulb appeared, so he’s wrong. Humans don’t need them either. We only think we do.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

Not to get all color politics on you, but where are the Asian Americans that represent more than one-third of the Bay Area population and about one-sixth of the population of California?


  • Cool image of a battleship leaning near the Golden Gate Bridge.

Summary (31/68): 46%

Ape kill ape in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The great challenge of the series lies in making apes act ape-like if they were human smart. So, uh, make them act like humans. But not too like humans, because that’s our thing. Make the apes act almost like humans but still have them swing on vines and branches and stuff.

Done. Apes learn about human weapons, and just in time, because a brigade of soldiers is on its way to crush the ape resistance.