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Friday, July 11, 2014

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film with a lot of history behind it. Counting the classic franchise, the 2001 remake, and the two films of the current reboot, this is the eighth Ape film. While I've seen the original and the awful Tim Burton remake (with admittedly great makeup), my experience is primarily with 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a film that was my biggest pleasant surprise of that year. What it lacked in originality it made up for with incredible CGI and a compelling lead in Caesar. There's a lot of hype around Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and I've been eagerly awaiting its release with each new dramatic trailer...so did it live up?

Dawn takes place ten years after the events of Rise, with nearly all of the world's human population wiped out by what is called the Simian Flu. We begin with a really wonderful opening title sequence that fills the gap using news audio and footage superimposed on a globe that rotates and exponentially gets more red as the infection spreads. It's a surprisingly touching intro that owes a lot to the quiet piano music, a nice change from the expected pumping techno; the loss of life is accentuated in a way that feels respectful rather than action-packed. 

The first bit of the movie takes place all with the apes: they have created an impressive home in the forest and seem to be living in perfect harmony. Caesar rules the clan with a kind hand as he raises his son and sees the birth of his next. Of course, us humans always mess things up–a group stumbles into ape territory as they make their way to a dam that could provide enough power to start the long climb back to civilization. Despite posturing on both sides, Caesar and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) come to terms and agree to work together to get the dam up and running. Things go sour along the way as a few rogue apes and humans separately sabotage the peace, and the last section of the film deals with Caesar and Malcolm trying desperately to stem the loss of life on both sides and stop the war that has begun.

It's not the best story that could be told in this world, but it's pretty damn close. The film really parallels the two factions in subtle ways, and the major theme, that one cannot define good or evil by race (or species in this case), comes about in a way that feels quite natural, falling out of the plot nicely. The real shine of the film comes from the ape side of that idea. They've created a very believable society, and we get to see all aspects of it, from hunting to education to bringing in a new generation. The team did a phenomenal job of developing a group of characters that in lesser hands would all blur together, but Caesar, Blue Eyes, Koba, Maurice, etc. all have distinctive looks and personalities and are truly the stars of the film.

Therein lies probably my only quibble with the film: the humans are nowhere near as interesting. Clarke and Russell are okay, it's just that their characters have very little depth, and the film does a lot of telling rather than showing with the human characters. For example, they go out of their way unnaturally point out that Russell's character "know's what she's talking about, she worked at the CDC!" Mostly though, the 'evil' human character Carver is incredibly one-dimensional and just seems to generally hate apes and think they're kind of gross, compared to his ape counterpart Koba, who must weigh his painful history with humans against his loyalty to Caesar, and is clever, sympathetic, and frightening. Gary Oldman is criminally underused and underdeveloped: lost family + aggressive stance towards apes=the entire character.

However, my overall enjoyment of the film far outweighed this issue. A lot of my positive reaction to the movie falls largely on the shoulders of the insanely and uniquely talented Andy Serkis, who brings an incredible amount of life to the animated main character. His performance as Caesar is full of depth, compassion, and complexity, and his love for the character and his craft is evident throughout. Serkis deserves every bit of the first billing that he receives when the credits roll. The CGI and motion capture in the first film was impressive, but here it's simply stunning, and you quickly forget that the apes are not real, that there won't be IMDb pages with chimps and gorillas and all their previous credits...

One of the unexpected highlights for me was the music, done very well by Michael Giacchino. Like the intro sequence, the bulk of the film has really subtle music that is tender in the right places but hits the action sequences well, too, with pounding tribal drums. The sound in general was excellent; the vocalizations of the apes are powerful and frightening on a level that tickles the most primitive part of our brains, and the mix knows just when to pull everything out and let the violence on the screen contrast nicely with the solo music.

All in all, it's a fine film that lives up to most of its expectations, if not in the way I quite expected. I wish that the human characters had a more interesting part to play, but I found myself wishing it was an all-ape film at times, given the quality of the character development and visual effects that went into that side of the movie. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a great addition to the franchise, and if the next film, helmed again by director Matt Reeves, is as much an improvement as this was over the first film it will be something to really look forward to!

I give it an A-.
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