The writers have done an admirable job with it, despite having much less promising material to work with than in the first film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. There we had the whole fascinating subject of how the apes overcame human subjugation, and could witness the world as we know it begin to change beyond recognition. There was also the built-in powerful emotional tug of the apes' oppression by humans, in zoos and experimental labs.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was written by the husband and wife team of Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, and it was a masterclass in screenwriting, one of the great movie scripts of all time. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which is set in the world after the collapse of humans, as apes begin to become dominant is also — thank heavens — written by Jaffa & Silver, although a subsequent draft was done by Mark Bomback who wrote the great suspense movie Unstoppable, had a hand in the terrible Total Recall remake and was the other credited writer (along with Scott Frank) on 2013's excellent The Wolverine.
I have no idea of who was specifically responsible for what in the script, so it would be unfair of me to attribute some of its weaknesses — like the whole damned dam thing — to Bomback. The whole damned dam thing is the central plot device of the movie. The surviving humans in San Francisco need access to a hydro electricity generating dam in the wildnerness outside the city controlled by the apes. So far, so good.
Gary Oldman has a big speech about how they must get this electricity so they can try and make contact, by radio, with any other surviving pockets of humanity in America or around the world. Also so far, so good. But then he says they still have two week supply of power (presumably generated by gasoline) before they run out. So why are they waiting for the hydro before they try to make contact? Why aren't they on the case already? You don't need a special variety of hydro electricity to run your radio. It's just blithering nonsense.
But that's the only flaw in what is an otherwise intelligent film with some gratifyingly subtle touches — the apes' intellectual development is signalled by their use of body art: face paint and other decorations. And the script still shows Jaffa and Silver's great strengths: powerful, moving characterisation and an unerring instinct for areas of big dramatic potential and crucial turning points in the story
Also, Koba (played by Toby Kebbell) is a magnificent villain. There is an ancient tradition of ugly or disfigured characters who are evil, but here there is a built in reason both for his disfigurement, and the fact that he is evil.
Andy Serkis as the good ape Caesar is outstanding in a strong cast (Rise of the Planet of the Apes also had a great cast). The movie also looks beautiful thanks to the cinematography by Michael Seresin. It is well directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), who has actually fashioned a work of art. I love the way it begins and ends with the same image: a close up of Caesar's formidable, staring face. There is also an outstanding music score by Michael Giacchino. Particularly noteworthy is his hunting cue which is an homage to Ligeti.
So, how does it stack up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes? Well, that film was one of the best of the decade. This is merely one of the best of the year.
(Image credits: a selection of the few images at Ace Show Biz.)