Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
(130 minutes, Rated PG-13)
The latest from the Planet of the Apes franchise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes happens to be my favorite of the series, but that is not saying much. I have never been a fan of the Apes films; I respect them for what they are, yet the original series was never my ‘cup of tea.’ And lets not even talk about Burton’s remake, which buried the franchise until 2011s reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Even that entry had the studio hesitant about greenlighting a sequel, but Rupert Wyatt’s picture was a critical and financial goldmine.
So here we are three years later, with a new director, basically a new cast (minus one or two apes) and sky high expectations. And though I do not believe higher expectations is warranted for a sequel with an entirely new cast, people should be excited about the outcome of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. This improves upon everything from the original. But at the same time, it keeps the emotional core of the 2011 flick. By the end of the 130 minute runtime, the audience will feel emotionally connected to Jason Clarke’s Malcolm and more importantly Andy Serkis’ Caesar.
Now, one should not specifically label this movie a slow build: a heart pounding standoff between a bear and Caesar highlights the beginning. But it does take sometime to get going, which is a good thing: it allows the audience to sit back and remember why they fell in love with Caesar in 2011.
The ‘quiet before the storm’ allows the viewer to establish a connection with both protagonists and it also helps us understand their motivations: in fact, Malcolm and Caesar connect because of shared interests, which is to do anything to protect their families. Obviously, this plot ploy is not brain surgery: when you have two heroes who are only trying to look out for their loved ones, then you become empathetic to their cause. Therefore, the writers properly establish why the viewers are rooting for Malcolm and Caesar.
With that said, by far the most shocking thing about the writing is the fact that the story remains ape-centric. This is not one hundred percent surprising because Caesar was the main highlight of the original: but even Rise had the James Franco’s character to add a human element. So Dawn decides to have the almost human-like apes control the story and has a good portion of the first act in complete silence: the apes mostly communicate in sign language.
For a big summer tentpole, this is a bold choice that could have backfired badly: yet, the writing keeps the audience engaged, even if some of the dialogue is exposition heavy. The plot is so controlled by the apes that technically their narrative guidance introduces the human’s storyline: the camera does not randomly cut to the humans, until the ape’s become aware of their presence. Again, Caesar was the favorite of the original, but this certainly took chances; I have to ‘tip my cap’ to the studio, writers and director for having the bravery to do this.
And the writing deserves a lot of the credit for Dawn’s success; the three writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback provide an interesting narrative that tries to shake up the genre by having smarter material and subverting expectations. For once, I really liked the philosophy behind this summer blockbuster: a phrase I did not think I would ever utter. The ideas behind Caesar, the unapologetic leader who wants to keep the apes out of war, and Koba his right hand ape, whose upbringing in a testing lab created an unadulterated hate for humans, perfectly forms an interesting ideological clash.
Caesar may be nobler for trying to keep them out of war, but his own uncertainty about humans indirectly fostered the ape’s hate. He even blatantly says that he thought apes were better than humans, but by the end he realized that both creatures are one in the same: this blatantly takes a magnifying glass and looks at racism in America, which according to some has ended. The realization that even the noblest character could be stuck in a backwards way of thinking is an extremely satisfying commentary on modern society. Furthermore, this cultural significance is what makes the bigger action sequences that much more rewarding.
As for these action set pieces, the writers somehow created a technique that will simultaneously show clichés but keep the audience guessing. It is brilliant how they did this: they used plot points seen every summer action film, but subverts the audience’s expectation by throwing in ‘a last second curveball,’ usually to make the situation’s outcome different. I can list off countless examples, but I do not want to spoil some of the surprises for potential moviegoers.
Now, the previously mentioned ape-centric story does come at a cost; it severely limits the screentime of all the human characters, except Jason Clarke. I understand that the studio was not going to make a 180 minute movie that cost almost $100 million; but, Dawn needed an additional ten to fifteen minutes to give more of an arch to Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, Keri Russell’s Ellie and even Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Alexander. Yes, they all have smaller moments that actually pack an emotional punch, but all three had thinly written arches.
In fact, Dreyfus, who appears to be a villain in the trailers, only has fifteen minutes of screentime and his actions are only in response to the apes’ measures. Again, he does have a smaller moment that adds a little bit of depth to his one dimensional character, but why have Gary Oldman if the filmmakers were not going to give him anything to do. The same goes for Keri Russell’s character, who is simply there to be a doctor and Malcolm’s love interest: both of Ellie’s roles serve as mere plot points to drive the story forward.
And once the audience gets past these three, the human characters become thinner and thinner: for instance, Kirk Acevedo, who in the vein of Frank Grillo is an actor that has become a personal favorite of mine, is reduced to a stereotypical hate-filled role. The audience assumes his character’s motivation is from the virus outbreak days, but the film does not bother to explain his actions: like Russell’s Ellie he is merely there to drive the story forward. With that said, for the most part, Jason Clarke is a fitting lead; as an unapologetic fan to Clarke, I find his turn in Zero Dark Thirty to be Oscar-worthy, and he provides a step up from Franco’s phoned in Will Rodman.
However, one element of the protagonist did bother me; Malcolm and his family are the only ones who believe that the apes are smarter, yet for some reason he constantly talks down to them. He shouts and talks slowly at them: like how an inexperienced person talks to a mentally handicapped or even a deaf individual. The few times he did this, it took me out of the picture: a small little gripe that is a nuisance, but did not fully ruin Clarke’s character.
But what the crowds really came for are the ‘motion capture performances;’ lets get this out there, Andy Serkis deserves a nomination for Dawn, but will not get it. The argument is that CGI/motion capture hides an actor’s performance; if so, then how did Brad Pitt get nominated for 2008s Benjamin Button. When one looks into Caesar’s eyes, the ape feels like a real living creature and anyone can tell that it is Andy Serkis’ doing: he gives a sense of humanity to the CGI creature. But alas, old people, who fear change, run the Academy; so it is highly unlikely that any sort of recognition will be given to Serkis.
Furthermore, the sequel does improve on the original’s cast of apes. Serkis is not the only actor who gives a great motion capture performance: Toby Kebbel is fantastic as Koba, Nick Thurston is wonderful as Blue Eyes and even Karin Konoval returns as the fan favorite Maurice. Every single actor is on top of their ‘A game,’ which helps to immerse the audience into this ape world.
Finally, all the acting and writing is brought together by some bold direction; Matt Reeves from Cloverfield and Let Me In fame took chances not normally seen in a big summer tentpole (do you catch the common thread). There are some elaborate tracking shots/one takes that I was shocked and amazed to see. For instance, during the initial battle between apes and humans, Koba jumps into a tank and then, in one long take, proceeds to ride it as it goes in circles: the wonderful part is that this perfectly displays the surrounding chaos. On top of this, there are some quiet scenes with long conversations that also happened to be shot in one take: as if Reeves just sat back and allowed his performers to act. Yes, this style is far from new, but somehow it felt refreshing and innovative for a summer blockbuster.
Reeves even bookends the picture with Caesar’s eyes, which would be a gimmick in other flicks, but here it perfectly shows how much Caesar has grown in the course of this movie. It is nice to see a summer film, where each shot has an emotional purpose; even the previously mentioned tracking tank shot was done to show the horrible impact of war. And the action scenes are extremely anti-war: showing the brutal toll of violence on both sides. Even Koba, who plays the aggressive militant type is semi-moved by the death toll of the apes: where the character goes wrong is that he is willing to do anything to make the humans pay, which means he is willing to sacrifice more apes.
Both sides feel the brutal nature of humanity and these battles show that though they were armed, they were not emotionally or physically prepared. And all of this empathy and emotions are jam packed into a 130 minute package, which has a fantastic pace: even if I wish there was an addition ten minutes for human development. With that said, the only drawback to Reeves’ picture is Michael Giacchino’s score, which I found distracting throughout. Whether it sounded downright generic or out of place, the score was simply all over and several times it took me out of the picture.
In the end, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ends on high note: building up to the eventual threquel that will probably come out in a few years. I just hope that 20th Century Fox has patience and takes as much time with the inevitable ‘threquel’ as they did with this sequel. Dawn is an amazing smart film that takes its time to build up its characters before running towards the explosion trope of summers. Even though X-Men: Days of Future Past remains my favorite mainstream summer picture, Apes provided a smart alternative than dreck like Transformers 4 or Maleficent because it felt like there was an idea behind the story. And the actors, writers and director’s care for the material manifested this idea.