Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review

(dir. Matt Reeves)

20th Century Fox

“Apes do not want war.”

    The Planet of the Apes franchise has always been allegorical, an exploration into the issues of the time. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continues this tradition, albeit more subtly so than many of the previous installments. The struggle to communicate propels the film’s narrative forward, the struggle to deal with pain without violence. While the battle between apes and humans and the sight of gun-toting chimpanzees riding horses may be the selling point in the trailers, it is character complexity and emotion that elevate the film above the rest of this summer’s big-budget movies. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes abstains from taking a casual look at violence and creates as haunting an image of the cost war as Charlton Heston’s Taylor staring up at the ruined Statue of Liberty.

     Ten years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, most of the human population has been wiped out by the simian flu. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are living peacefully in Muir Woods. This peace is strained by the reappearance of humans, who seek access to a dam to restore power to the city. When one of the apes is shot and injured, Caesar and the co-founder of the human settlement Malcom (Jason Clarke), try to maintain a cautious peace. But the human settlement’s other founder, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), begins stockpiling weapons in case of an attack. Koba (Toby Kebbell), undermines Caesar and uses the humans’ mistrust to bring them all one step closer to war.

      One of the aspects that works best about the films in the new Apes franchise is restraint. The film‘s scope is intimate and despite the title’s allusion to global conflict, the story never steps outside of the ruined San Francisco and surrounding woods.  The steps taken towards the world established in 1968’s The Planet of the Apes are small but meaningful. This is not a story rushing to catch up with the original film, but rather one that is comfortable in its world-building. 20th Century Fox seems invested in this new franchise beyond just a trilogy, so we can expect many more Apes films over the years. The scale of the film has a Shakespearian quality, particularly in the first half the film. And while the third act does reach an epic climax, it is not the sort of world-ending situation that audiences have become so used to with summer movies. It is refreshing to see a film that can find drama in the battles without rushing to reach the war.

     The motion-capture for the apes in this film is put to even better use than the last film. Weta does such a marvelous job creating the seamless effects that the fact these are CGI- enhanced characters never takes you out of the film. Each ape is easily distinguishable which really helps in terms of forming the emotional attachments necessary for the film’s themes and stories to come across. The first twenty minutes of the film is almost entirely sign language between the apes, but even in the moments without sign language there is much communicated simply by looks and posture. Andy Serkis, Toby Kebell, Nick Thurston, and Karin Konoval are all mesmerizing to watch in their ape performances and imbue their characters with a real sense of weight and full range of emotions. Andy Serkis has made Caesar one of the greatest characters in the history of science fiction films. Perhaps most impressive is that when the apes speak it is not effortlessly. There is at times a painful struggle to speak and be heard that is oftentimes heartbreaking in its effectiveness.  

     The human performances, rounded out by Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee, are also impressive, each carrying the pain of their losses on their faces. With his everyman looks and piercing eyes, Jason Clarke continues to be one of the most interesting supporting actors in recent years. Gary Oldman’s role is not as big as expected but he delivers a solid performance as always. While the apes are the leads of the film, the main human characters provide interesting and necessary foils that prove apes and humans are not as different from each other as they believe. Some of the best moments of the film come from silent moments that truly show how alike the humans and the apes are. The film does not allow Caesar or Malcom to be heroes easily as they are faced with choices that are not clearly divided along the lines of good and evil. Likewise, Koba and Dreyfus are not easy villains; both are blinded by their own pain and their conviction that they are right. The relationships of the apes and humans, defined by an initial cooperation for resources and a later conflict over hidden weapons, provide an interesting commentary on the war in the Middle East.  In lieu of recent articles discussing the necessity of humans in the movie, the fact is that the Apes franchise has always been about humans’ struggle to actually see humanity for what it is. Make no mistake; Dawn of the Planet of Apes is about us.

     Matt Reeves’ skill as a filmmaker has made leaps across Cloverfield, Let Me In, and Dawn. Thankfully he’ll be back for the next Apes installment. There’s a sort of somber fatalism he captures across his films, and it’s a fatalism this film hinges on. But within this fatalism, Reeves never fails at capturing the incredible warmth that can be found in doomed relationships. While those familiar with the Apes franchise have a strong idea of where the relationship between the apes and humans is headed, there is still a heartbreaking sense of inevitability in the end. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has set a new precedent in sequels and has become the most engaging science-fiction franchises around. Truly, it is something special. Because of its mesmerizing effects and design, its earnest examination of war beyond spectacle, and Shakespearean levels of tragedy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the movie of the summer.

Grade: A+