Apes with Attitude
A Film Review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
By Lawrence Napoli
One of the reasons why I never became a fanboy of this particular mythos is because it was an inescapably depressing and ugly reflection on just about everything humanity has defined as “contemporary society.” PotA as a brand, doesn’t pull punches, doesn’t sugar coat with hope and unabashedly puts the blame on you, me and every other human being for the fall of mankind. Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes not only advances the dynamic origins of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but maintains that unique blend of hopelessness and intimate storytelling that were born of the original films and television series of the late 60s and 70s. Of all 2014’s summer blockbusters, Dawn… delivers the most intellectually engaging plot by dialing back a bit on the popcorn and ramping up the dialogue driven drama amongst the key members of the cast. The audience is spared witnessing the global plague of the Simian Flu and catapulted into an Earth where only small colonies of humans remain while the society of Caesar’s Apes flourishes. Once their paths intersect, history seems to repeat, our ideas of evolution are challenged and what “the right thing” means to society and the individual is examined under a microscope.
I only had a slight apprehension regarding this film for two reasons. First, despite James Franco not being one of my favorite Hollywood types, he did a fantastic job in Rise … and his character is not in this sequel. Second, there’s a change at director, and sometimes that doesn’t affect the quality of the film (see the multiple directors of the Harry Potter films) and sometimes it sinks the franchise (see Joel Schumacher’s adoption of Tim Burton’s Batman). Thankfully, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver return to scribe the plot of Dawn … and despite the massive plot jump from where we left of at the end of Rise … this film’s story effectively connects to its predecessor and stands strong on its own so newcomers shouldn’t feel obligated to see the first film, but I highly recommend it.
Caesar, the unofficial king of Apes in his particular kingdom, is certainly the focal point for the majority of this film which is interesting for a number of reasons. He is still comprised of computer graphics and he doesn’t speak fluent English with his brethren as sign language is still the dominant form of communication amongst the Apes. Making this kind of character as important to the plot of any production is simply not done too often even with today’s technology due to the aforementioned communication restraints. The visual effects combined with the motion capture talents of Andy Serkis presented the most believable fabricated manifestations to date, but it is the gravitas of the dialogue amongst the Apes that enhances the illusion to the point where talking Apes are practically indistinguishable from live actors. The content of this film’s story works extremely well with the context of the spectacle and social commentary.
Granted, this film is not exactly on the same level as the other summer blockbusters in terms of intense action scenes throughout its runtime, but that doesn’t mean Dawn … degenerates into another snoozer, morality tale. Most of the ape movement and combat is depicted from wide angles, which allows the visual effect artists to showboat their impressive skill set. Apes swing through the trees with fluid grace, while lumbering about when walking on the ground on their hind legs. Ape combat is fairly brutal by featuring hand to hand ferocity, but let’s just says fists and melee weapons are not the limit to the danger they present to each other as well as the surviving human beings. Of course, humans are no pushovers and while they are as tough as wet toilet paper when facing down an ape face to face, they compensate with superior firepower and explosives which showcases some standard issue ballistics and pyro visual and practical effects. I’d prefer the bar to be raised for the effects used for gunplay in films that feature it, but seeing how so many resources were dumped into breathing life into fabricated apes, this film gets a pass. The only catch regarding the action in this film is that it’s not particularly well balanced and the dialogue tends to lull the audience. Again, the individual needs to realize that this franchise is not about adrenaline and explosions, but there’s enough here to maintain a high entertainment value provided one engages with the plot.
Despite drama being the priority in this film, there aren’t many individual performances that stand out. Andy Serkis as Caesar once again demonstrates motion capture as a performance art that needs greater recognition from the entertainment industry in general, but before that happens, there needs to be more actors than just him to demonstrate a similar level of excellence. When Caesar speaks, Serkis produces a voice that is equal parts honorable, dominating, serious and threatening. As a matter of fact, most of the dramatic moments occurring in this film are between Caesar, his son, his family and the rest of his society. Jason Clarke’s performance as Malcom represents the best of the live actors in this film. Yes, his character has the luxury of being the one human to consistently reach out to and interact with Caesar, but his performance in general and his facial expressions in particular sells sincerity and desperation in the exact ways they were meant to reflect the composure of his own colony. Gary Oldman, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have enough screen time for the audience to truly define him as either a protagonist or antagonist which leaves his performance in the neutral role of the placeholder. This criticism applies to the rest of the human cast because quite simply, this film really isn’t about them and there’s only so much you can do with support status.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes the pedigree of Rise … and raises the stakes on the drama and danger involved with creating and maintaining a “civilized” society. This fiction is yet another interesting experiment in the “what if?” scenario where things like decency, safety and general order are determined less by institutions and more by anyone’s ability to manipulate the mob. “Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar.” - Gracchus from Gladiator (2000). If this film inspires yet another sequel (which judging by its global take at the box office, it may) it will be interesting to see Caesar evolve into a more seasoned philosopher-king having shed his naiveté after the events that transpire here. This movie is the best-rounded cinematic experience of the summer of 2014, but don’t splurge on IMAX or Real 3D tickets to partake.