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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Cover art:

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smith-McPhee, Enrique Muriciano, Kirk Acevedo

Directed by Matt Reeves


The biggest knock that could be made against Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that the human characters are a bit on the thin side. I’m more than okay with that in this instance since this is a motion picture about humanity that isn’t actually about humans. Therein lies a great deal of the great filmmaking at work here.

Early on it looked like this was going to be another movie about how we humans might be able to make peace with another species, only to muck it up with our inability to not be violent, hateful idiots. You know, Avatar.

You could see the writing on the wall when human leader Dreyfus (Oldman) gives peace-seeking Malcolm (Clarke) three days to make a deal with the apes for use of a live-saving hydro-electric dam before he decides to go in guns ablazin’. Dreyfus and many other survivors like him cannot reconcile the notion of now being equals with another highly evolved species of animal, particularly one blamed for being the cause of a virus that has killed their loved ones along with most of the human race. They may be low on resources, but they’re up to their eyeballs in firearms left behind by FEMA and the military.

But there’s more complexity to the quandary than Avatar because as you’ll see, these apes have come into their own building a tribal society with its own rules that leads them to think they’re so much better than we untrustworthy, self-destructive humans. Alas, they too fall victim to very human forms of violence, hate-mongering, paranoia, and lust for power. An unhealthy mix of mistrust, ape-sassination, and a false flag conspiracy leads both species down the road to war and the very real possibility of mutual annihilation.

It is 10 years following the events of the previous film. Most of the human race has been wiped out by a simian virus. The apes have established their own colony in the wilds outside of San Francisco. They haven’t seen a human in so long they believe we have gone extinct and are perfectly happy about it, except for their leader, Caesar (Serkis), the one creature on the planet pining the loss of James Franco. Caesar knows from his own experience that not all men are bad; yet, even he has little patience for the folly of man when the first thing the first human that shows up in a decade does is shoot one of their own.

In an age where movies with a message tend to be preachy to the point of sanctimonious and during a period of American history when it seems like mass shootings are accepted as an every day occurrence, Dawn puts out what could be the most powerful anti-gun sentiment without really trying to be specifically on-point. Or maybe director Matt Reeves and screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback were trying to make a bold statement without beating us over the head with the message, as is often the case today. The apes are militantly anti-gun (Caesar orders them destroyed any chance he gets), viewing firearms as a symptom of humanity’s destructive nature that now threatens ape-kind. Yet, when the time comes, many of the very apes that share this belief are more than ready to turn our weapons back on us, even use them on their own kind, drunk on the intoxicating power of a deadly weapon – much like a damn, dirty human.

This morality play takes shape in the form of a power struggle between the wise Caesar and the ruthless Koba, a former lab ape scarred physically and emotionally by the torturous experiments humans once performed on him. Caesar understands Koba’s resentment, even shares some of it. Koba views Caesar’s willingness to work with humans as a sign of weakness and disloyalty to his own species. Caught in between is Caesar’s boy-becoming-a-man son, Blue Eyes, forced to decide between living up to his father’s stern benevolence or giving in to Koba’s genocidal madness.

There’s an ongoing debate as to whether Andy Serkis, truly the Lon Chaney of the digital age, deserves Oscar consideration for his motion capture performances. Many argue that the extensive computer-generated enhancements in post-production are too much to qualify him for acting awards. To those people I say, “See this movie!” because Serkis isn’t the only one that deserves serious consideration. Absolutely Serkis breathes life into Caesar, making him such a commanding screen presence: thoughtful, merciful, frequently smoldering with primal fury, conveying more with the way he stands and the look in his eyes than any number of human actors could with dialogue.

Beneath the digital paint of Koba is actor Toby Kebbell. Credit to the effects artists for making Koba such a terrifying visual presence; however, there’s still only so much you can do with special effects. It takes a human touch to so exquisitely portray a spiritual downward spiral showcasing how even justifiable anger can completely corrupt the soul. The writers have tinged most of the characters, human and ape, with a moral gray area, making it easy to sympathize with their point of view even when you know they’re completely wrong. With Koba, we get that gray area’s breaking point, making for one of the best screen villains in a long time.

There are actual human actors in this movie as well, more functional than fleshed out. Oldman could have been on par with Caesar in terms of inner turmoil, only to get short-changed by a lack of screen time. Malcolm is something of a cross between Franco’s scientist from the previous film and the guy from Avatar who came to view himself having more in common with the apes than most of his own species. Keri Russell as his doctor girlfriend isn’t given much to work with except when her doctoring skills come in handy. The human actors are all adequate in their roles; they just feel one-dimensional next to the three-dimensional motion-captured effects they’re acting opposite of.

This movie is a perfect example of how special effects should be handled. You forget you’re looking at special effects. The apes of all shapes and sizes look and feel as real as the organic scenery that surrounds them.

Apes on horseback with machine guns, mixed monkey arts battles for dominance, Malcolm’s teenage son reading a graphic novel with kindly orangutan educator Maurice, Caesar’s newborn playfully climbing about Malcolm and his family with none of the fear or disdain so many of his kind have been taught to feel for humankind… so many moments great and small I could go on about but will just stop here and leave it for you to discover why this is one of the year’s best. With so many summer blockbusters reduced to sound and fury signifying nothing more than more sound and fury, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is often quiet, thoughtful, and heartfelt, making the moments when it turns frightful and furious all the more daunting.

You know this really has been a pretty damn good summer for sci-fi blockbusters made with more of a deft hand than the tone deafness of, say, Trans4mers or Amazing Spider-Man 2. Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Snowpiercer, Godzilla, and now Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. If only theatrically released horror could take it up a notch, we’d really be on to something.

4 1/2 out of 5

Discuss Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in the comments section below!

Foywonder

3 Comments

  1. Just watched early show still trying to pick my jaw off the floor! It’s that good, when a sequel was announced with changes in cast and director i wasn’t too optimistic that the follow up would match or surpass Rise boy was I wrong! What WETA has done with performance capture is nothing short of revolutionary it’s that impressive. The digitally rendered apes in this film are more alive than many of the human characters they express so much emotion and each has it’s own personality and presence it’s just amazing. The whole package is solid though the writing, acting, fx it’s all money best film of not only this Summer for me but in my tops of all time now. Go see it now!!!

  2. I enjoyed it, very good film, and I’d give it a solid 4/5.

    A couple things keep it from being perfect. I would have preferred to see the battle expand into the ruins of famous structures just to enhance the illusion of a decaying civilization. It was way too predictable in spots and uneven by wasting too much time on slow scenes that only padded the runtime.

    My favorite thing about the film is the way it emotionally pulls you into different directions. You can empathize with the motivations of a majority of characters and just shake your head in sadness knowing nothing can prevent the inevitable. It’s a very symbolic statement of our current society without being overly preachy.

    Every group has their share of assholes and unfortunately, it’s the actions of these people that influence the masses, directly or indirectly.

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