Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was a surprise success. However, after such success, the expectations were raised for its follow up, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. Even so, the movie managed to smash expectations and become one of the best sequels of all time. Seriously, in terms of what a sequel is meant to do, Dawn is every bit as good as Empire Strikes Back, The Winter Solider, Godfather Part 2, Spider-Man 2, Terminator 2, or The Dark Knight.
What is it that makes a good sequel? What is it about those aforementioned movies that made them great, especially as follow-ups to their predecessors?
A good sequel, first of all, expands upon the character development that took place in the first movie. An audience has now been introduced to a character, and so the challenge is to now take that character to deeper levels, beyond what was explored in the first film. In many ways, writing a character’s sequel is a lot like getting to know a good friend. When you first meet them, you avoid heavier topics of discussion; however, as you get to know them better, you become more open to deep conversations about heavier subjects. Such is the case with a character in a good sequel. And indeed, this is what Dawn does with the character of Caesar. It’s been ten years since the events of Rise, and he has truly grown into a man (or grown ape…). In Rise, we got to watch Caesar grow up, essentially; we saw him from the time he was born until early adulthood. We saw the experiences that would go on to shape him as an individual; we saw his ideology molded. In Dawn, we get to see the fruits of those formative years. Caesar is no longer a confused and lost character trying to find his place in the world. He has a very clear set of ideas about life, leadership, apes, and humans; and almost all of them get challenged in this movie. That’s the type character expansion that makes great sequels. Take this great character that you’ve created, and take the ideals you’ve given them, and really put them to the test. Teach them that, despite the things they saw in those formative years, not everything in life is figured out by the time you’re grown up. As the old saying goes, you live and you learn; and Caesar does just that, the hard way. This is what keeps him compelling as a strong lead for this franchise. The larger story in Apes is not about the humans or even about the apes taking over the world; it’s about Caesar. It’s from his lens, which is indeed put to the test in this movie, that we watch the world come to a climatic battle of the species. And again, Andy Serkis gives an excellent performance and really inhabits this ape; I still contend that his work as Caesar is the best work he’s done, because you really believe you are watching an ape, and you really feel for that ape.
A good sequel also delivers on promises given by the original. For Nolan’s Batman, the promise made was simply the Joker, with the famous ending of Batman Begins featuring the Joker card. With Rise, we only got a taste of what a modern apes vs. man battle could look like, and it wasn’t until the final minutes of the run time. Furthermore, we only got to see mildly intelligent apes; they had not yet developed into the beings we meet in the original 1968 film. In Dawn, we have an entire film dedicated to brutal conflict between apes and mankind; the action delivers in this sequel, in spades. And not only that, but the apes are a lot smarter ten years after being injected with the ALZ-13 that made them intelligent in the first place. They’ve learned how to do things that help them survive in a more advanced society. And yes, the apes are riding horses and shooting guns, which is freaking awesome fun to watch. With the more developed apes, though, the filmmakers are careful not to have them do too much. For example, the apes still communicate mostly in sign language; only Caesar and Koba speak a considerable amount of dialogue. Other than that, Maurice gets one line in (which is a great, well timed line), and Caesar’s son also gets a few words in. What this restraint does for the filmmakers is leave room for more learning and growth to be shown off in War For The Planet Of The Apes; I’m sure they’ll be more developed in that film than they were in this film, and they were no slouches in this film. They give us enough to be more than the first movie, and be lots of fun; but they hold off on enough to where there’s still more to come in the next movie. Striking that balance can be difficult, and Matt Reeves and company pull it off perfectly.
Finally, a good sequel approaches its story with greater scale than the original. Dawn is indeed a much more epic film than rise, with multiple cinematic set-pieces populating its runtime. From an amazing opening in the forrest, to a grand battle for the finale, Dawn has a much more grandiose vision than Rise did, which only really had one true big set-piece, which was the escape. So yes, Dawn is indeed bigger and better than Rise.
So in short, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes works perfectly as a second entry in the franchise. It takes what was great about its predecessor, and takes everything to a bigger scale as well as a deeper level.
Now, it’s up to War For The Planet Of The Apes to close everything out in an even more grand fashion, with closure for Caesar. We shall see.