Dawn of Another Legacy
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes conquers the tremendous – and rising – Hollywood sequel stakes. That may be the most remarkable thing about Dawn were it not such a superior piece of digital craftsmanship too. Thus the focus is on Andy Serkis, who, so ignorantly ignored by Academy higher-ups and helped with astonishingly effective, emotive artistry, becomes ape leader Caesar.
A passionate, proud, stout Caesar elevates the growing ape population into something more than a human threat. While poised for a quasi-Walking Dead scenario – tired dystopias and fleeing humanity – Dawn is softer, more cautious. While less involved in racially motivated socio-political drama than the core series that once spawned this sequel, times have progressed. So have the apes.
They carry guns now, our guns. If anything, Dawn takes a stab at Second Amendment flag wavers and those who believe weapons are a solution. Villainous ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) bows and relents to Caesar, then taking charge with the unwieldy power he believes is given to him by bullets. Motivated by distrust and shaky loyalties, Dawn becomes two different films, one before the guns and one after. Only one of them can be viable.
Under director Matt Reeves and a mixture of returning/new writers, the film is an amalgam of prior Apes ideology, plucking imagery from 1972’s Conquest and a plotline from ’73’s Battle. Less of a clone, it’s what Dawn does with the conceptual base that turns it into a rare specialty event. At times, this visual medium is used in full, conveying enough through heavy expression, articulate production design, and unglamorous despair than most do with full scripts. Much of Dawn is silent – with subtitles. Studio films, big ones especially, rarely show that much bravado in antagonizing a domestic audience notably disinterested in reading.
Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell; they’re central to an opposing human side and almost insignificant. The Golden Gate bridge, critical to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, becomes a narrative bonding agent. Cowering, injured humanity on one side of the landmark, forest dwelling primates on the other. Dawn tips the internal scales to the forested venue.
Yes, this is unpleasant, stark, even dreary. For whatever reason, cinemas seem inundated with preparing us for some future downfall. Even among the glut of similar presentations, Dawn is markedly intelligent in its efforts to seize something of its own. Prior to the bombastic, enthralling action of Dawn’s sizable finale is carefully traced set-up. Explosions are meaningless without weight. Characters are dense and fully formed before the marauding Koba enters a cycle of inter-species betrayal. Astute pacing ensures all are given a share to develop and build character value.
This all swings back to Serkis’ motion capture. In Dawn, his struggles give vocals to hyper-realistic simians. Planet of the Apes of the ’60s and ’70s had iconic anthropomorphic make-up from John Chambers. They evolved, in time, like us. Of course they could talk. With raspy, somewhat tattered English, this rebellion is given Caesar’s credible voice. And, although in appearance he carries the features of today’s species, he logically speaks without distraction. The story he can tell is likewise momentous.
Video (4K UHD)
Stellar definition shows off from the opening close-up on Caesar and through to the finale. The 2K upscale barely registers when staring at the digital work. CG displays gorgeous levels of definition, from skin to fur. Medium shots lose nothing, and Matt Reeve’s choice to shoot wide views of the various environments. Concrete buildings, ape stick buildings, and forests carry an appreciable uptick over the standard Blu-ray.
Even with the detail bump, the true winner comes down to black levels. Shadow delineation offers marvelous detail within the effects and other areas. Fur on the black-haired apes doesn’t sink far into shadow, and rarely into crush. During the critical battle scene at night, nothing is lost. Lighter moments of darkness won’t let go of the depth, even if the top-end HDR effects stay reserved in this transfer. Dawn is not a film high on brightness.
While often taking place in a gray, slightly blue environment, some primaries escape, especially in the first act. The human world offers an array of faded if stout hues, adding variety to an almost monochromatic feature.
A touch of noise remains. Some artifacting slips into those areas where shadow detail improves. Generally, those pockets of compression reside off in a corner, or in a depth-of-field area. It’s an irritant, but a small one.
Tradition is broken in Dawn, becoming the first in the franchise’s lineage to be shot in 1.85:1 rather than 2.35:1. It’s also the first shot all digitally, another death knell to the days of rich, pristine film sources. Visually, the struggles are contained almost entirely to the first half, and then further by medium shots. A pasty, overly compressed look tends to dominate with camera range and the encode is an unlikely source of those troubles. Bitrates are more than sufficient. This all seems to be source-led.
While falling apart slightly, Dawn recuperates. Close-ups (and this goes double for the digital apes) are immaculate. The sheer level of definition celebrates the texture work down to individual fur strands, iris detail, tongue surface, and any other piece which gives them life. By comparison, even when exceptionally lit and finely rendered, the human cast is almost boring.
Some trouble with pale black levels will bother those looking for contrast-y oomph, a decision almost certainly made to keep the aesthetic persistent. On the back-end, things pick up as if by default. Rising flames and interior lighting begin a hefty march toward depth.
A touch of banding and limited noise (background fodder at worst) are what’s left, leaving the rest of Dawn to soak in expensive splendor. Post production color timing lowers saturation. While misty blues, grays, and teals are thick, there is still a sense of natural hues. Greens in the forest, untouched flesh tones, orangutang orange, etc. There is some life behind the tinkering, even if it is shaky.
Shot in native 3D, expectations are high for this presentation. Importantly, the format is well considered. Cinematography is consistent in keeping objects tight in the foreground. There is always something to look at, especially in the forests where plants can poke out from any image. Apes situate in formation frequently which means bodies in front of the lens. A number of simply spectacular aerial shots are stunning, both on top of the Golden Gate Bridge and from above in the skyscraper during the finale.
Few moments are aggressive though. A hand stretches to push into the the space, and some of the close-ups of the apes are dramatic. Their eye lines show a visible inset below their brows. Establishing shots are exquisite, the city in particular. Much of this presentation is accentuation, not a spectacle. That fits with the film itself. Some cross talk bothers should be noted too. Natural light is not kind to this format.
Rousing and humongous are words suitable to this Planet of the Apes audio mix, a DTS-HD offering using the full expanse of 7.1 to sell space, scale, and action. With immediacy, apes call out across the forest, leaping through trees while a stampede below adds the essential low-end prowess.
By the time Dawn has reached crisscrossing gunfire, the soundfield has exploded with directional material. Rocket launchers are firing to rock the LFE side, and then it moves deeper thanks to C4.
The disc never stops pumping matured design into the sonic space. Interiors capture piercing echoes and various metallic sounds, with rich exteriors dumping voluminous rain into each channel. Voices have an occasional split into the sides for effect. It’s a wide front soundstage even without them. Final consideration (just because) can be given to Michael Giacchino’s stupidly awesome score, which is both dramatic and suitably nostalgic.
Matt Reeves opens with a solo commentary track. It is a shame no one else joins him, especially from the effects side given how technical of a feature it is. Five deleted scenes carry his optional commentary as well. From here, it becomes a slew of relatively lengthy featurettes and only one of them is too plain, Journey to Dawn. It is purely a promo and luckily the shortest near nine minutes.
Rediscovering Caesar spends time with Andy Serkis as he discusses the role and how it was changed between movies. Humans and Apes looks at the cast and Reeves, along with how their involvement shaped the movie, with World of Dawn following by detailing location work. A 10-minute bonus called The Ape Community looks at the simians themselves. Moves Like an Ape appropriately comes next by showing the motion capture process and acting form. Weta and Dawn hones in on the famed effects studio and their involvement, up to creating new cameras and rigs so they could mo cap in the rain. Fight for a New Dawn then closes the extras right by detailing the full CG finale. A gallery is left.
In total, these features run 80 some minutes combined and their look at the special effects is superb. Each is highly recommended.
Fox returns to the lauded Planet of the Apes series with a new cast, creating a near classic in the process.
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.