Sunday, July 20, 2014

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

by Michael Popham

On a Friday afternoon 41 summers ago -- Friday, June 15, 1973, to be exact -- Battle For the Planet of the Apes opened in theaters around the nation. It enjoyed little fanfare and carried none of the weighty expectations of a summer blockbuster.  In fact, the summer blockbuster had yet to be invented.

 In those days summer was regarded as a slack time for movies, and nothing of importance was released in the summer months.  Battle For the Planet of the Apes had  "nothing of importance" written all over it. 1968's phenomenally popular Planet of the Apes had already spawned three sequels, each one cheaper than the last, and Battle, the fourth sequel, was the chintziest by far.  It was aimed straight at the kiddies and was essentially a cheat. Instead of an epic ape-versus-human war for control of the Earth, as had been breathlessly promised in the trailers, the movie ended with a half-hearted skirmish between a couple dozen apes and some begoggled humans driving dusty jeeps and a schoolbus around the Fox Ranch.

Battle was for many years the last film of the Planet of the Apes franchise and it stood for decades as a monument to the law of diminishing returns. No sequels followed it because no one could figure out how to make another Apes film for less money.

But the generation of kids who paid money to see the ignominious end of the ape film cycle grew up, and passed their enthusiasm on to their kids; their fond memories fueled a renewed interest in all things ape.  The ape renaissance began with an ill-advised  remake of the original film by Tim Burton in 2001.  A decade later, another attempt was made to reboot the franchise, and this time Rise of the Planet of the Apes got it right.  That film, essentially a re-telling of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, described how a chimp named Caesar gained the power of speech and led his oppressed ape brethren out of bondage.

The new Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, like Battle, begins ten years after the events of the previous film.  The world's human population has been decimated by a genetically-engineered plague and humans have all but disappeared. Caesar, along with his tree-dwelling compatriots in the Muir Woods, wonders if the humans have finally run themselves into extinction.  That particular outcome would suit most of the apes in Caesar's company just fine, since their only interactions with humans had been negative: the lucky ones had been imprisoned as zoo specimens; the unlucky were used in cruel experiments.

One such unlucky ape is Koba, a chimp scarred both physically and emotionally. While he secretly covets Caesar's power, he knows he cannot challenge him directly, and he bides his time. He knows that sooner or later Caesar will be weakened in the eyes of his people and ripe for overthrow; the only question is when.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the humans aren't extinct after all.  A small human enclave has sprung up in nearby San Francisco. The survivors, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) want to re-establish a power grid, to replace the diesel generators that are quickly running out of fuel. To this end they seek to repair the hydroelectric power station which (convenient to the plot but inconvenient to everyone else) lies within ape territory.

One of the humans making his way to the dam stumbles onto a pair of apes.  The human, Carver (Kirk Acevedo), is startled and reacts (as humans tend to do) with gunfire, and one of the apes is injured. A kinder, gentler human contingent led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) arrives to apologize and plead their case for access to the power station.  Caesar agrees to this, much to the consternation of the other apes, and for the first time Caesar sees his leadership being questioned by his followers.  Caesar and his moral counterpart Malcolm seek a way to establish a mutually beneficial truce; while Carver and his counterpart Koba relentlessly push their respective sides toward bloody conflict, and this tension is what propels the movie forward.

Dawn is a surprisingly intelligent and nuanced film, reminiscent of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins in the way it transmutes its pulpy, low-budget source material into something much more evocative and serious. The word Shakespearean keeps bubbling up when you think about it, because the characters seemed doomed by their own weaknesses. Both the humans and apes want to build a new society, but the worst habits of the old order keep intruding.  Even the apes, building a community for the first time on the bedrock of simple, immutable principles ("Ape no kill ape") find that ambition, resentment and blood-lust inevitably creep in and threaten to destroy everything they have built.

Dawn also represents a new high-water mark for CGI in film; it contains some of the most carefully-done and convincing SFX work I've seen in a long time. Like all good special effects, you don't notice them most of the time, and simply take what you see at face value.  This is especially important since the movie takes a huge gamble in turning over so much of the movie to its ape characters. Luckily, it pays off. Andy Serkis' performance as Caesar comes through the effects process effortlessly, and seeing him communicate with his brethren via sign language and occasional words and sentence fragments is delightful. The ape community, shown to us in small intriguing glimpses, leaves us wanting more.

 Curiously, for a film as ambitious as this one, the ape characters seem much more fleshed-out than the humans. Malcolm is inexplicably dull and earnest, and Kerri Russell's Ellie has little to do but stand around and look concerned. Even Carver, the catalyst for so much of the mayhem in the film, is just a clod who conveniently makes the wrong choices 100% of the time. And Kodi Smith-McPhee is an unfortunate example of what seems to be standard-issue in post-apocalyptic stories these days: the sullen, brooding teenager.  By comparison, Toby Kebbell's Koba and Nick Thurston's Blue Eyes have much more dynamic character arcs, and it's too bad the humans weren't thought out as thoroughly as the apes.

All in all, though, this is a nearly perfect movie, certainly the best in the franchise since Charlton Heston ran around Ape City in a loincloth nearly half a century ago. To director Matt Reeves and company I say: congratulations, well done, and bring on the sequel.

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