Monday, August 11, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Directed by Matt Reeves.
2014. Rated PG-13, 131 minutes
Andy Serkis
Toby Kebbell
Jason Clarke
Gary Oldman
Keri Russell
Kodi Smit-McPhee
Kirk Acevedo
Nick Thurston
Karin Konoval
Doc Shaw

Following the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Simian Flu has spread around the globe, killing millions of people. The survivors all turned on each other, creating war on a truly worldwide scale and seems to have made the human race extinct. Meanwhile, the now highly intelligent apes have built a peaceful society under the leadership of Caesar (Serkis). Things change when a group of humans show up in said woods. They need to use the nearby dam to generate power for their own compound or they'll have no way of finding out if there are others still alive. The magnanimous Caesar lets them start the work they need, but is very wary of them and what their true intentions might be. Other apes, most notably his right hand man ape Koba (Kebbell), don't trust the humans enough to even do that. Instead, Koba believes they should wipe out the humans while they are weak. A massive power struggle ensues. If that weren't enough, Caesar also has to deal with his wife's condition. She becomes gravely ill after delivering their second son.

From the beginning, we're drawn into this world where what we thought was impossible is not just passed off as real, but feels that way. Spectacular visual effects go a long way to create that feeling. At all times, it appears that we are indeed looking at real apes. We're never pulled out of the movie by a shoddy looking creature. Even better than that, a great job is done of making them recognizable individuals with a discernible and wide range of emotions that come through in subtle ways. Andy Serkis, reprising the role of Caesar, can't be credited enough for either of his performances as our protagonist. It is simply amazing work. I fear he'll never earn any sort of Oscar recognition because it is hard to tell how much is due to his talents as an actor and how much is techno-wizardry. I will hold out a little hope because he did earn an Oscar nomination for his work as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, though.

The success of this movie isn't entirely due to special fx, or even to Serkis and the rest of the cast. They have lots to work with. The writing is remarkable. Caesar is a more complex character than most humans in most movies. His decisions are thoughtful, but not arrived at easily. Things weigh heavily on him. We see this and quickly come to empathize with him. He has to juggle using force with diplomacy. He takes calculated risks. He contemplates the feelings of those he leads. On the opposite side of the fence, Koba is not as complex, but still very well written. He is no mindless barbarian with an unfounded bloodlust. His current state of mind is arrived at logically. It makes sense that he would have the outlook on things that he does. He gives us a villain we can understand even as we actively root against him. Added into this already volatile mix is Caesar's first son Blue Eyes (Thurston). He is at the age where he is brash, impulsive, and not entirely sure if he buys everything his father is selling. He wants to be his own ape, so to speak. This relationship is merely a subplot in the grand scheme of things, but still comes across beautifully and plays out in compelling fashion.

No less evolved is Caesar's relationship with humans. He knows we are capable of great compassion and have a constant need for advancement. However, he also knows of our tendency to destroy. In short, he recognizes that each person must be judged on his or her own merit. This is something Koba is unwilling to do. What comes of Casear's knowledge is a relationship that both fulfills and disappoints him. It tests his optimism. In turn, it is also a test of ours. We really feel good or bad as things play out.

The best movies in the Planet of the Apes canon are commentaries for things that are currently going on in society. The 1968 original tackled racism and presented something of a role reversal in that area. This remains the most popular reading of the franchise. However, this movie is no slouch in that area, either. The race angle is downplayed, for the most part, but there is one human character clearly meant to represent bigotry and the ignorance that comes from it. We also deal with the human penchant for violence and depleting our resources. Perhaps the biggest issue at hand is attacking our growing dependence on technology. We've become a world where anyone who doesn't have technology is not really part of it. It's an idea espoused throughout the movie without ever brow-beating us about it.

Much like Rise..., Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a mesmerizing experience. It pulls off the difficult trick of being a visual spectacle and having plenty of heart. We get outstanding action scenes that feel important. Strangely, this area provides me with my biggest complaint about the movie. Occasionally, when the apes are in the frenzied motion of a battle it becomes difficult to tell them apart. However, this is not a problem during the climactic scene. We also get touching moments without resorting to over-sentimentality, so it never feels manipulative. There is plenty of food for thought, here. Better than any of that, though, as soon as the final credits roll we begin eagerly anticipating the franchise's next installment.


  1. Excellent review. It's a film that I think is much better than it needs to be but it's because it has something to say while being quite gripping to watch. I'm for a third film just as long as they get it right.

    1. Thanks. The fact that it has something to say gives it that extra push into greatness. It is certainly gripping to watch. I, too, am all for a third film, as long they don't rush things and cut corners to make a quick buck.

  2. I can't wait to see this. I was practically dragged to see Rise, and I enjoyed it a whole lot more than I thought it would! Great review as always :)
    - Allie

    1. I can't wait for you to see it. This one is as good, if not better.

  3. Nice review here. I too loved this film, which is unfortunately not something I get to say too often for large summer blockbusters. But you're so right, not only was the action in this film stunning, but it was also important. And not overly long, which is always a plus.

    1. It's the most thoughtful summer release in a few years, for sure. The length was perfect, also. It didn't needlessly tax on 30 more minutes of mindless explosions and lame jokes like all the Transformers movies, for instance. Thanks.

  4. Good review, man. Glad you liked it.

    I think that the story was very well crafted (if not a little cliched) and that Serkis did something amazing with Caesar. The humans though, for the most part, were the weak link. But, as an allegory about mankind's reliance on technology and lack of respect for nature, all is forgiven.

  5. Humans were definitely the weak link. Even so, I loved it.