Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Poster

As I child, I loved watching the old Planet of the Apes movies and live-action television series on the Sci-Fi Channel. Tim Burton’s wretched 2001 reimagining, on the other hand, left me wishing that filmmakers would leave the classics well enough alone and not further tarnish the good name of Planet of the Apes with any more unnecessary remakes, reboots, etc. But then Rise of the Planet of the Apes turned out to be, I thought, unexpectedly one of the best films of 2011. When Rise director Rupert Wyatt left the sequel, I was disappointed and concerned, but, despite also cutting loose most of the cast of the first movie, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ably carries on the rebooted series’ winning streak.

The opening sequences, depicting the apes living peacefully in the forest some decade or so after their escape from the city, play to the strengths that made the first film so distinctly effective. The chimpanzees, brought to life through an artful combination of performance capture and computer-generated visual effects, actually look and move marvelously like real apes, as opposed to the perversely evolved “ape-men” of the old movies. The ape characters communicate with one another mostly by signing, so, for a significant portion of the first act, not only are there no live actors (because there are no human characters), but there is very little spoken dialogue (and not much more signed and subtitled dialogue). Instead, it is left to Andy Serkis and his fellow motion-capture actors to carry the action through their physicality, and to composer Michael Giacchino to convey the story’s emotional arc through his resonant score.

And, as throughout the first film, there is, even in these peaceful moments, a mood of muted tragedy. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the mood was self-contained to that story, because the entire narrative was set into motion by the James Franco character’s tragic obsession with finding a cure to his father’s Alzheimer’s, even at the cost of compromising on his research ethics. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes reveals the immediate post-ape-ocalypse his experiments have wrought, most of humankind wiped out by the “Simian Flu” he unwittingly engineered. But if you’re familiar with the bleak original series of films set in the far future, then you know that worse days yet lie ahead for both human and ape. Although the new films exist in their own timeline separate from the old, still events seem to grind fatalistically toward that iconic image of Charlton Heston down on his knees in the sand, as every pivotal decision characters make in this movie presents merely another opportunity to agonize over the wrong turn they have taken toward doomsday.

When the apes realize that some humans have survived and that they remain inclined to violence, ape leader Caesar (Serkis) must decide quickly how to manage this potential threat to their way of life. As the warrior apes march en masse to the gates of the human city, the film delivers some of its strongest images. Most of the apes do not so much march as nimbly scale verticals and stride along the rooftops of ruined buildings, which again effectively illustrates the true “ape-ness” of these characters as not merely humans in heavy makeup. Then, when the hundred or so on foot form up to stand together with their horseback brethren at civilization’s doorstep, the message behind their display of controlled power and unmistakable intelligence is appropriately intimidating.

It has been suggested to me that the degree to which nature had managed to overtake abandoned man-made structures in a mere ten years, as depicted in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was unrealistic. I honestly have no idea. It’s disheartening to think that, so soon after our departure as a species, the monuments we leave behind could fall to such desolation—buildings crumbling to pieces and covered with moss and vines. There have been examples in the real world showing how rapidly untended shopping malls can structurally decay, or how quickly the earth works to reclaim its territory, when humans are not around to continually battle back against the forces of nature. But whole redwoods sprouting up around a hydroelectric dam within a mere decade? I don’t know about that. Frankly, I think it even more unbelievable that the apes would have stayed put in this national park these ten years without even the slightest inkling or curiosity what was going on in the rest of the world.

The middle portion of the film, when a group of human characters, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), work with Caesar to try to mediate a peace between the two mutually hostile sides, is less compelling, mostly because the characters are all so thinly developed, with the possible exception of Caesar, who is MIA for significant stretches. Malcolm has no great backstory to suggest why he is so committed to this peace, nor why he feels such an affinity with Caesar. He’s just blandly a good guy, who desperately wants to avoid war and all it entails (though it’s unclear what he personally knows of it). This is a huge problem, because Malcolm is really the lead character for a larger portion of the film than even Caesar.

As for Caesar, it’s a pity that, try though he might to lead with the same strength, sagacity, and charisma as his namesake (no, not any of the Roman historical figures; I refer, of course, to the redeemer ape played by Roddy McDowall in the last two of the original films!), he has not the conviction, ultimately, to remove from within his own camp the warmongering influence of his unreasoning lieutenant and brother ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell).

When the heavily scarred and sinister-looking Koba first appeared in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I immediately pegged him as Caesar’s evil counterpart, and I fully expected the movie to climax in a battle between the two chimps over the life of the James Franco character. One of the qualities that so impressed me about that first film, then, was how it resisted forcing such predictable turns, recognizing rather that Koba’s arc would have been, at most, of tertiary interest, better left to be resolved in a sequel that was, at the time, hardly guaranteed (and, indeed, for most of the cast and crew, there would be no sequel).

Again, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I expected Koba to play the Scar to Caesar’s Mufasa, and again I was impressed to find things not so simple. Up until the humans arrive on the scene, Koba is actually kind of a likable character. He’s like that uncle who is full of stories, generally fun to be around, and always looks out for his own, but who also happens to be seriously racist, which everybody just uncomfortably pretends not to notice, as they take care to keep him off certain topics. When he inevitably does become the villain, it is not for personal profit but more so for ideology, which I suppose is less villainous.

The same is true of the human faction’s leader, Dreyfus, played by Gary Oldman. It’s a small part for a big actor. Seriously, when he showed up late in the film, I was shocked that he was in it, even though, in fact, he had had a few scenes already by that point. But, as always, Oldman entertains. His incredulity at the suggestion of a peace with talking apes is probably the best part of the movie. He plays his character as someone who sincerely thinks himself in the right and working in his people’s best interests. Dreyfus and Koba alike are guys with the guts to make the hard decisions, but not the wisdom to think them through.

When the film at last violently climaxes in the apes laying siege to the human city, the results are thrilling. The nighttime raid is not yet so dark as the ending to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), which the sequence clearly evokes, but the way that the apes engage in warfare—leaping and swinging about—makes the conflict something fresh to behold. Meanwhile, the sight of a chimpanzee on horseback and dual-wielding assault rifles is as terrifying as it is absurd, as has always been the allure of the Planet of the Apes films.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes drags on for a little while longer after that, and, I must confess, my interest dropped considerably once the one major action sequence was concluded. There are still some good bits after, but, with the expectation that the events here were fated to lead into the original premise of the entire franchise, I did not see that there was much that any of the characters could meaningfully achieve during the remainder of the film. By that point, I was ready for them to bring on the next story, when finally those astronauts would return to find the planet not as they left it.

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