Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Film Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I have always been lukewarm to the Planet of the Apes franchise, with its pessimistic to nihilistic tone. The bleak hopelessness never really appealed to me, even while I acknowledge the skill of storytelling that many of the installments display.

I felt the same way about the last film. Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Apart from the amazing-as-always Andy Serkis, I found that the movie was nothing to write home about. So it was with little enthusiasm that I went to see the sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

And it is the best movie in the franchise.  This includes the original Heston Classic.

Dawn takes place about a decade after the end of Rise. The simian flu has destroyed most of humanity. The apes, led by Caesar (Serkis) have kept to themselves and we find them working and hunting in primal harmony. But the last remnants of humans led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) incur into ape territory to try one last effort to get electricity for their people. The result is a mounting conflict between humans and apes as there are faction fighting for peace and others aching for war.

While the plot seems simple, it yields incredibly rich results. What makes the stakes so strong is that most of the characters are three-dimensional. While watching both sides of the rising conflict, I completely understood the rationale of all sides. This could have easily devolved into dumb-oppressive humans against freedom-loving apes, as Rise portrayed. But the tension kept increasing because the decisions that most of the characters make, human and ape, are choices we would make in those situations and they can lead tragically to violence. Based on the trailers, I thought that Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman) as the co-leader of the human community was going to be a simple revenge-driven ape hater. But I was so pleasantly surprised to find this wasn't the case. He espouses violence, but he is not a reactionary. He is a wounded man cautious about the safety of his people.

Director Matt Reeves has an incredibly confident style about him, relying on his mastery of visuals to tell the story in a profoundly affective way. He works from an incredibly smart script from Matt Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver. The post-apocalyptic landscape is moody and full of character and foreboding. He relies heavily on the special effects, not so much for spectacle (of which there is plenty) but for emotion, story, and character. The apes speak, but are not nearly as loquacious as the humans. Most of their character has to be conveyed with their non-verbals.

A word here about the ape design and motion capture, which is incredible. The design is fantastic and doesn't fall into the trap of making most of the apes indistinguishable from each other. Caesar is pensive and noble in appearance. Koba (Toby Kebbel), his friend and general, has a scarred and grizzled look. Caesar's son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) looks like midway point between Caesar and Koba: scarred but idealistic. M uch of the drama centers around the fight for Blue Eyes' soul. And several other minor ape characters are immediately recognizable.

The motion capture is some of the best I've ever had. Serkis' skill is diffused to the much of the rest of the cast. Reeves understands that cool-looking CGI must be subservient to real emotion. I cared about Caesar and his struggle. And much of that is based on how effectively the motion capture can convey Serkis' amazing performance. It is one of the best acting jobs I have seen this year and I think that he will once again be snubbed of an Oscar nomination, which he richly deserves. Caesar is a bag of contradictions all rolled into one: he is the leader of a people who has more sympathy for enemy humans than most of his people. He is a warrior who hates violence. And Serkis plays him with incredible conviction and charisma.

As a Catholic, I love how the movie shows the waste of war. So much of human conflict comes from our inability to get along and those agitating elements that desire conflict. Peace seems so close and yet just out of grasp. It also shows how violence and hatred can erode the soul. Without giving too much away, Koba begins as an incredibly sympathetic friend who is haunted by the cruelty of his former human torturers. But he uses that wound to nurture his hatred. It is a stark warning that even justifiable anger can eventually warp the soul if it uses that pain to justify horror.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a fantastic story and excellent mediation of violence set in a bleak, but visually spectacular future. If you only see one Planet of the Apes movie, see this one.

4 out of 5 stars.

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