A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth's dominant species.
Dawn of the Preamble
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is best experienced knowing as little as possible. No hype. No expectations. No preconceptions. Don't read the movie portion of this review. Don't watch any trailers. Simply pop in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and follow it with this excellent film that is a cut above normal blockbusters, existing in a place that is not only thrilling and visceral, but also classically character-based.
For those who have seen the film, or who want a more traditional review, keep reading.
Dawn of the Plot Synopsis
Dawn takes place ten years (winters) after the events of the first film. After a global pandemic, created as an attempt to cure Alzheimer's, wiped out humanity, Caesar and his band of super-intelligent apes have taken to the forests north of San Francisco where they are doing quite well. They've built home-like structures in the trees, hunt for food, and are using their increased brain power to build a society. In fact, it has been two winters since anyone has seen a single man.
It is a time of peace...
Until human survivors show up looking for a hydro power plant in apes territory. Jason Clark and Gary Oldman are Malcolm and Dreyfus, the co-leaders of the humans dwelling in what's left of San Francisco. To survive, they must turn the power back on, but to do so will me traveling through ape territory, made all the more terrifying because these apes talk.
This sets in motion a tale of two sets of brothers. We have Caesar and Koba, the emotional and physically scarred ape from Rise, on one side. Malcolm and Dreyfus on the other. If it were simply Caesar and Malcolm working together, perhaps there could be cohabitation, but Koba and Dreyfus are damaged beings, instinctually distrusting of other species, driving peaceful men towards conflict.
What can Caesar and Malcolm do to protect and not betray their own kind? If Caesar refuses to help Malcolm, the humans will start a war. If Caesar works with Malcolm, the humans may become strong again. Strong enough to bring violence to the apes. Either way, war is coming.
Dawn of the Review
A cut above the normal blockbuster, Dawn is emotional, thrilling, suspenseful, and a master class in action filmmaking. It's a movie your teenage self would absolutely adore. But also one your adult self wouldn't later hate your teenage self for loving.
Given my initial praise for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, expectations have been high. Despite my best efforts to keep an even keel, Dawn exceeds said expectations in so many ways. The set-pieces are white-knuckle, edge-of-your-seat experiences, and the filmmakers are smart to juxtapose bombastic ferocity with tender character moments. A movie without villains, it's a drama tackling deep themes about the nature of humanity, about our inherent fears and thirst for violence. Honestly, I'm simply in awe anyone could make a film this complex and character-rich in the current corporate studio system, and can't wait to see this franchise grow. Especially after director Matt Reeves agreed to return for the next installment.
That said, there are a few things that could be improved, and will hopefully evolve in future installments. The apes story is absolutely fucking perfect. It's political and emotional and honest. It's, as Matt Reeves intended, kinda like watching The Godfather...with CGI apes. That said, the human story doesn't always measure up. Some will say it's underdeveloped or simple, but I personally think the issue may be one of Present Drama vs. Backstory. All of the Ape-drama plays out in the movie, but the humans are often limited to emoting about Before. All of the human motivations work pretty great, but they lack the complexity inherent of having to work them out in the story itself. For this movie, it's fine (and a bit of a revelation, helping us connect to both sides of the story), but perhaps could be a little more balanced.
Next, while this doesn't necessarily apply to all movies, I would argue future Apes movies need female characters who are integral to the story, enhancing the themes and plot twists, that aren't simply girlfriends or wives of the main characters. Like Rise, Dawn ops for only one lead woman character. The great news is that it's Keri Russell; the bad news is that she doesn't get to do very much. Caesar's wife, Cordelia, while the crux of a few emotional scenes, does even less. What would happen if the next group of human characters are lead by a woman? What would happen if Cordelia decided she should lead the apes? I dunno. Just spitballing ideas. I also don't know want to constrain the filmmakers to meet some required check box. But you all just made an awesome movie. Now do better.
Lastly, we need to talk about Weta's visual effects, which are, more often than not, photo realistic. Combined with great actors like Andy Serkis providing motion capture, Weta has accentuated those performances as well as created the world around these apes. For most of the running time, it's virtually impossible to tell yourself that none of these apes exist. That these sets were filmed EMPTY. However, despite the great job, what (to me) looked perfect in cinemas, there are a few shots that reveal CGI creatures (not main characters).
A few nitpicks aside, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' is grand-yet-grounded blockbuster filmmaking that was excellent in cinemas, and is a treasure to own on Blu-ray.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to Ultra HD Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with a flyer for a Digital HD Copy, which can be redeemed via FoxRedeem.com but only available in HD / SDR and HDX on VUDU. The dual-layered UHD66 disc sits comfortably opposite a Region Free, BD50 disc inside a black, eco-cutout keepcase. At startup, the UHD goes straight to a main menu screen with full-motion clips, the usual options along the bottom and music playing in the background.
The war for the future of Earth erupts on Ultra HD equipped with a great-looking HEVC H.265 encode, offering an appreciable improvement over its HD predecessor. Although it's likely Fox once again recycled the same 2K master, fine lines and objects are noticeably sharper, showing better clarity of the city streets, buildings and the various items furnishing the small community. In Caesar's neck of the woods, leaves and the bark of trees are distinct while individual hairs are discrete, better revealing the minor blemishes, scars and wrinkles in the faces of the CG apes. During the climactic battle scene, little pieces of debris and rumble flying everywhere remain detailed from a distance, and the facial complexions of the human cast appear more natural with often stunning lifelike textures. Sadly, I also detected a few instances of minor aliasing around the sharpest edges of electrical equipment and mild ringing around the most random objects.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the 2160p video displays better improvement in the contrast. Although it's not a dramatic jump from its HD counterpart, viewers will nonetheless notice crisper, brighter whites in the clouds, clothing, Caesar's face paint and various light sources in the film's second half. Specular highlights receive a small upgrade, making the reflection of light bouncing off the faces of people and individual beads of sweat shine more intensely without overwhelming the finer details. Colors also benefit somewhat, looking a bit perkier and livelier than before with reds looking particularly thicker and more crimson while greens appear more animated. Flesh tones, too, come with a realistic rosiness, giving the cast a complexion that seems more accurate to the environment, and the glow from the campfire showers faces with a fiery orange light. Unfortunately, the details within the flames of fire and explosions are lost in the peak brightness, looking more light a blob of orangey yellow while the burst of gunfire appear slightly tighter.
Where the 4K presentation really shines, however, is the improved black levels. Whereas shadows appeared murkier and a tad dull — more a dark gray — the HDR10 version shows richer, inkier layers of true black with luxurious gradations between the various shades while shadow details remain plainly visible and sharply delineated. The opening sequence as the apes hunt deer in the forest is one of the best moments for comparison. The wooded area is noticeably bleaker and more atmospheric, but the ragged, rough bark of trees, the individual hairs of each animal and the dark wrinkles in the apes' faces are still discrete and detailed. The same can be said of the climactic battle against the humans, as the streets are shrouded in pitch blackness and explosions brighten specific areas. The improved brightness adds a good deal of dimensionality and provides the 4K video with an appreciable cinematic quality.
As they did with the first movie on UHD, Fox unleashes the sequel with the same DTS-HD MA 7.1 track as the Blu-ray, which is a great mix but also a missed opportunity for the Dolby Atmos track heard in cinemas. With this being the case, I'll simply reiterate what Mr. Palmer wrote in his review.
While Dawn of the Planet of the Apes debuted theatrically with a stunning Dolby Atmos surround mix, Fox has elected to release this Blu-ray in 7.1 DTS-HD MA. But don't worry, this is a reference quality, demonstration worthy sound mix with a wide dynamic range catering to swirling action sequences and immersive quiet moments.
Despite lacking height channels, the impressive Dawn soundtrack immediately captures the attention with the soft pattering of rain dripping on leaves, transforming your living room / home cinema into a forest. (In fact, when applying the receiver's DSU function, those same atmospherics are nicely spread into overhead without feeling artificial or forced. Instead, they add another layer to already fantastic soundfield.) From there things only improve, from the guttural ape speak to Michael Giacchino's terrific orchestral score that manages to create new themes while evoking the franchise's origins. LFE levels are tight and punchy, but never overwhelming. Surround effects panning is aggressive too.
Overall, Dawn boasts an awesome Blu-ray audio experience.
Audio Commentary: Director Matt Reeves shares his thoughts on the themes, production and anecdotes, and the track can also be found on the Ultra HD disc.
Weta and Dawn (HD, 20 min): Interviews on the CG animation and the extensive effort for realism.
Humans and Apes (HD, 18 min): Discussion on the cast and character motivations.
The Fight for a New Dawn (HD, 16 min): On the fight and stunt choreography.
Move Like an Ape: An Artist's Medium (HD, 15 min): BTS footage on the motion capture and CG work.
The World of Dawn (HD, 15 min): Cast & crew talk about the shooting locations and production design.
The Ape Community (HD, 10 min): Interviews on Caesar's Eden-like society and individual personalities.
Andy Serkis: Rediscovering Caesar (HD, 9 min): On the actor's performance and the MoCap work.
Journey to Dawn (HD, 9 min): More interviews on connecting this franchise to the original classic.
Deleted Scenes (HD, 4 min).
Still Galleries (HD).
While the first movie was a great surprise, director Matt Reeves takes the reigns for the sequel, Dawn of the Planets of the Apes, and delivers an equally satisfying follow-up. With excellent performances all around and amazing CG animation, the film is a terrific spectacle of thrilling action and poignant drama that marvelously adds to the Ape mythology.
Fox brings the sequel to Ultra HD with a generally satisfying 4K presentation, showing a small improvement over its Blu-ray counterpart, particularly the black levels delivering a nice cinematic quality. Unfortunately, the same DTS-HD soundtrack has been ported over, along with the same set of supplements. Still, the overall package is worth checking out for enthusiasts hungering for more HDR10 goodness.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.