“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” Review

Andy Serkis = Oscars (Now!)

A Film Review by Akash Singh

NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!

The Planet of the Apes franchise has undergone a similar rebirth to the X-Men franchise. Similar to the catastrophe that was X-Men: Last Stand, Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes was a terrifying horror that mainly existed to tell us why certain movies should never be made. Similar to X-Men: First Class, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a fantastic return to form with a strong storyline and Andy Serkis to boot. While X-Men’s latest installment improved upon its predecessor, Dawn does not do the same. By no means is Dawn a bad film, it’s terrific. But amidst the much darker tone and carnage there is a better, more rounded film in existence that gives half of its cast something more to do. Perhaps it’s the sequel.

The plot is relatively straightforward. In a terrifying map opening that looks to be inspired by Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and World War Z, the sequel establishes that a simian flu has wiped out most of humanity. A small community resides inside San Francisco and a group from that community comes in contact with the apes. Turns out the apes are more than just routine animals, which comes as a great shock to the small group. Cue the clash of both worlds and Shakespeare and there’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The humans need the help of the apes to repower a dam so they can actually have power. Koba, Caesar’s right-hand ape, distrusts the humans, which makes sense considering the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar trusts them and as his cooperation with the humans increases, Koba’s confidence in him decreases. The two fight over the humans and Koba pulls a Brutus on Caesar. He attacks the humans as Caesar and his loyal followers try to stop him. The film ends on a dutiful cliffhanger. Despite the straightforward nature of the narrative, the story works because it takes an existing narrative and it dares its characters to change dramatically and leave them as extremely changed individuals. That’s what a good sequel does.

The motion capture is absolutely astounding. Andy Serkis does such a terrific job as Caesar it is incredibly difficult not to be moved by it. The moment when he watches the video of him as a child and hugging James Franco has to tear your heart out of your chest and throw it across the Golden Gate Bridge. Toby Kebbell is stellar as Koba and his increasing paranoia and ultimate turn as villain is given the appropriate amount of gravitas. Nick Thurston gives a great performance as Caesar’s first born Blue eyes, going from skepticism of his father to the horrifying realization of what support for Koba really meant. As with the first one, Karin Konoval’s Maurice is a wonderful, calming presence. His scene with the comic book is one of the film’s highlights. Judy Greer gives a brief performance as Caesar’s wife Cornelia and her reaction when she assumes her husband is dead is heart wrenching. The apes’ society is complex and is rendered fantastically, with a system of governance and even an open schoolroom. Matt Reeves’ direction never creates a sense of simplicity within the apes and it’s an incredibly vital move for the integrity and sanctity of the film.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the human characters. The actors are all fine, even though it seems like Jason Clarke’s Malcolm is trying too hard and the effort is visible. The problem is that the script doesn’t give them complicated material to deal with, often leaving them one-note and very obvious. Malcolm is the James Franco of this film and as the leader, he is never really wrong. All obstacles, at least until the very end, he is able to solve and thusly his character loses a ton of immediacy that would have been remarkably helpful. Keri Russell’s Ellie is Malcom’s wife and I was quite irritated that she wasn’t given more to do other than be the woman from the CDC who was kind and maternal. She kicks ass on The Americans physically and emotionally but here she doesn’t get material that’s strong enough. If we follow this same group of characters for the sequel, I want true trials and tribulations that challenge these characters to the very core of who they are. Nevertheless, she’s really good and I want Ellie to be a much larger presence. Their son (not biological) Alexander is competently played by Kodi Smit-McPhee and his best turn involved his scene with Maurice. Kirk Acevedo is basically the group moron who gets all the xenophobic dialogue. Kirk is fine but the character is dull and utterly predictable.

Visually the film is absolutely stunning. The landscapes are gorgeously shot and the CGI used is so seamlessly integrated it looks real. The shots of all the apes thundering down and hunting are breathtaking. The film is a technical marvel. The motion capture as mentioned before is used tremendously well. Matt Reeves is the director here. His Cloverfield chops helped him get the job and he handles his first large budget special-effects blockbuster with aplomb (although, thankfully he absconds from being reliant on shaky camera. His 360 camera shot from the top of a tank of the battlefield is a summer highlight. Extraordinarily well-done shot. Michael Giacchino has a thundering score and it adds tremendous gravitas to the events unfolding on screen. It’s loud, but it doesn’t overwhelm the dialogue, helped no doubt by the well-done sound mixing and design.

Overall, the film is a solid sequel that fundamentally changes it characters and its narrative by taking the bold risks few sequels do. The performances are solid, with the more stellar work coming from the apes that came with better writing for their characters. Every good Planet film comes with an abundance of allegorical warnings and Dawn, while being less philosophically inclined than its predecessor, takes its sights on gun violence. The major horror turning points of the film are due to gun violence and the film makes no mistake of showing how violence, or even the mindset of using guns as a solution to anything is the wrong path to choose. When guns are fought with guns, the only things left are bloody corpses. As Caesar notes, war is coming and now there is little left to be done to avoid that path. The apes have been drawn with immense complexity and the expanding of the world is a promising aspect. For the sequel to work, there are fundamental changes that need to be made that primarily concern the human characters. Make them sharper in characterization and give them obstacles that will be tremendously difficult to overcome. The series will be all the stronger for it.

Great

8/10

Title: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Matt Reeves

Producers: Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Written by: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Based On: Characters created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver; Premise suggested by Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle

Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo

Music: Michael Giacchino

Cinematography: Michael Seresin

Editing: William Hoy, Stan Salfas

Production Company: Chernin Entertainment, TSG Entertainment

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Running Time: 131 minutes

Release Dates: June 26, 2014 (San Francisco), July 11, 2014 (United States)

Image Courtesy: Cinema Blend, Movie Pilot, Business Insider, Comic Book Resources, Stitched Together Pictures, The Hollywood Reporter

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