Sunday, August 17, 2014

Late to the Party: A Review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I have a soft spot for certain cinematic flourishes and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" found one of them. "Dawn" begins and ends with the very same shot: an extreme close-up of Cesar's eyes, eyes that belong to the leader of these apes. I don't know why I love this shot so much; it's the type of thing that would lose its effectiveness if too many movies utilized it. Long tracking shots, for instance, are starting to lose their special-ness for me, especially after Alfonso Cuaron devoted an entire movie ("Gravity") to it. I think I love opening and ending a movie with the same exact shot because of how the meaning of the shot changes. It's the same exact shot, yet in many ways, it's not. So much has happened between these two shots, that it's very much a different shot, emotionally speaking.

Cesar begins the film being a leader of the apes and he ends being their leader as well, but he's gone through so much more. He's a different leader now. In the beginning, the apes are more-or-less at peace. A great majority of the human population has been wiped out thanks to the Simian Flu (a disease my wife argues would never exist in real life, but that's neither here nor there). As far as he and the rest of the apes know, the humans are done for. So, the apes start their own civilization in a nearby forest outside of San Francisco.

Cesar has a son that's still learning the ways of the wild and his mate has just given birth to another boy, though not without catching some sort of virus. The only thing the apes seem to worry about are bears and other wildlife creatures, until one day a group of humans go exploring into the woods and one of them shoots an ape in chest out of fear (or stupidity). This sets the apes off, as you can imagine. Cesar orders the humans to leave and a few of his comrades are suddenly out for blood. Cesar, though, is a very smart, tactical leader who doesn't have an "eye for an eye" mentality. He wants very much to avoid anymore apes from being hurt, or worse, killed. But a rogue ape named Koba seems to have other plans, and the two of them are constantly at odds with each other for the rest of the movie.

The humans intentions for being in the forest is pure: they want access to a dam so they can restore and bring power back to the city. What I love about the movie is how Cesar goes back and forth with these humans. While there are some bone-headed characters in the film that toe the line of being one-dimensional (like Gary Oldman), it must be noted just how even-headed Cesar and Malcolm (leader of the humans, and played by Jason Clarke) are. I like how Malcolm earns Cesar's trust one moment, then temporarily breaks it, then earns it back again after Malcolm's girlfriend (played by Keri Russell) helps nurse Cesar's wife to good health. This feels much more realistic to me than what you would normally see in a movie like this where a temporary "friendship" is quickly broken due to a misunderstanding. Instead of Malcolm and Cesar's relationship being used as a plot device, the writers actually seem interested in exploring these characters through the relationships they have with their own species and with the other.

Of course, the film does get a little too obvious, thematically, from time to time. There are many moments where it makes it clear that the humans and the apes are just the same, when it comes down to it. You know the film is aiming for this theme when Cesar actually says, "humans and apes are the same." At first I thought the comparisons between humans/apes was clever, but I was disappointed when it became clear that was the point the writers were trying to make. This didn't stop the film from being as entertaining as it is, but it certainly could've used a little more subtlety to make its point more effectively.

Overall, "Dawn" surpasses "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" in a number of ways. First of all, the story is much more complex and intriguing than the premise of "Rise." When I first saw "Rise," like most of you, I was thrilled to see that they found a way to make the "Apes" franchise fun and relevant again. But when you think about it, and with repeated viewings, it's really a rather simple film. The simplicity works in that it makes for a successful revival of a franchise and the writers' interpretation of how the apes took over the world is fun in how it actually seems plausible, but "Dawn" really shows just how morally and emotionally complex an "Apes" film can be. This leaves us with a film that has a lot to say about human nature; and honestly, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is the only blockbuster film this summer that actually made me think.

That said, the film isn't afraid to go all-in when it sees the opportunity. Watching Koba go from annoying Cesar to downright usurping him was legitimately thrilling to watch. Seeing an ape ride a horse through a fire while carrying an assault rifle is something I'd never thought I'd see in my lifetime, unless it was some kind of elaborate joke/parody. No, thanks to director Matt Reeves and the patient work of the writers, it's actually pretty goddamn thrilling.

We know, once those humans come face to face with the apes, that there will be an inevitable battle between ape and human, once again. Thankfully, the filmmakers manage to make this particular battle standout just by how reckless and chaotic it is. The humans are in a panic, while the apes seemed to have gained complete control. But what surprised me was to actually see a one-on-one matchup between apes. You can sort of see Koba vs. Cesar coming, but I did not expect it to be so emotionally satisfying to watch them come to blows. This is a movie that earns its action scenes.

And it earns that final shot, a repeat of the opening shot, where we get another close-up of Cesar's eyes. This time around, he seems more weary. Yes, he's still their leader, but he faces much different challenges than what he had in the first movie. The movie has an open-ending that strongly suggests a sequel, but in a way that makes "Dawn" feel like it's own entity entirely. You don't need to see "Rise" to enjoy "Dawn." It's all laid out there before you. By the end, the war between apes and humans isn't over and Cesar know this. He has to find a way to keep his apes from being eliminated, which seems impossible knowing the amount of firepower the humans have. Still, the apes take comfort in knowing they have such a strong leader in Cesar. And as for me, the movie-goer? I too feel compelled to follow Cesar wherever this franchise takes him.

This shouldn't be an addendum, but it just goes to show you how amazing it is... the CGI in "Dawn" is so seamless that it almost goes without saying. The motion-capture performances from Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell, et al. is just brilliant. I was in awe of the technology in the 2011 film. For Dawn? I didn't even think about it while I was watching it. Not to say I truly believed I was watching talking, miming apes, but it certainly felt that way after awhile.

Grade: A-

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