Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Review by Matt Finley

Precisely as powerful, and twice as fun as THE DARK KNIGHT, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is the best summer sequel in ages. Having admirably tackled most of the series’ clumsiest expositional burdens (that pesky ape-smartening, human-killing wonder drug) in 2011’s RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, joined here by THE WOLVERINE scribe Mark Bomback and director Matt Reeves (LET ME IN), are able to swing effortlessly into the post-ape-ocalyptic future, where a single gunshot fired by a cowardly plague survivor sets off a profound and devastating series of events, upsetting the tenuous balance between a human civilization in decline and the rising empire of the apes.

In the 10 years that have passed since the simian flu was unleashed at the end of RISE, everything’s been coming up ape. Caesar, still imbued with deft nuance and intimidating presence by motion capture maestro Andy Serkis, has started a family and, with the help of his fellow laboratory escapees, erected a posh forest village where the primate clan seems to be getting more intelligent by the day.

In the ruined city below, passed the wind-haunted Golden Gate and a dozen derelict quarantine checkpoints, the last surviving San Franciscans, led by the blandly affable Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and fiery, entitled Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), ration out their lives in the walled-off, blacked-out city center. One day, when crossing the forest in an attempt to access and reactivate a decommissioned hydroelectric dam, men meet apes. One bullet later, DAWN takes off.

Quickly revealing itself to be a less a spectacle of man vs. ape / ape vs. man than a grand and action-packed rumination on man as ape / ape as man, DAWN’s overriding magic and tragedy lie with its portrayal of Caesar and his kin as they struggle to protect each other without risking the peace of their fragile, fledgling society.

While RISE’s direct engagement with the original 1968 PLANET OF THE APES was limited to some cutesy name-dropping and eye-rolling dialogue references, DAWN goes straight for the mythology, giving fans the first hints of the eventual ape planet’s social hierarchy - gorilla warrior class, learned orangutans, and all. Plus horses! We also witness not only the newly brainy apes’ first, ominous handling of firearms, but also their first introduction to art, music and antibiotics.

The humans, meanwhile, have all the depth and character of the ripped up cereal boxes that many zoos bill as primate “enrichment objects.” Malcolm is pleasant and trustworthy, his wife, Ellie (Keri Russell), is sad sometimes, and his son, Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee), loves Charles Burns comics. Humans. Just tryin’ to survive and read Black Hole and stuff. [Full disclosure: I am a human.] 

Hey, if the precedent set by RISE continues, it’s not as if we’ll be following these folks into the next film anyway.

More importantly, the trailer’s promise of horse-mounted simians screaming through a tsunami of fire is only a taste of DAWN’s fantastic, brutal and beautifully realized set-pieces. Reeves vacillates seamlessly between quiet, close-quarter scenes and sweeping crane- and helicopter-shot vistas. Where he truly shines, though, is the action. A climactic storming of the human city, in particular, mixes effects-laden Helm’s Deep-style castle storming with shades of CuarĂ³n’s camerawork in CHILDREN OF MEN. It also features one of the most singular visual sequences I’ve seen this year, capturing 360 degrees of immolating chaos from a single, fixed angle, shot from the turret of a tank.

Ultimately, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APE’s superlative, beautifully realized portrayal of the ape faction, and decreasing focus on increasingly one-dimensional human peoples only further drives home a focus on the man inside the ape over the ape inside the man. Caesar struggles to maintain order… His young son, River (Nick Thurston), teeters on the brink of adulthood, and nurses a dangerous hunger for independence… His tortured advisor, Koba (Toby Kebbell), who still bears the scars of scientific experimentation, struggles to contain a violent, unbridled hatred for man…

It has the air of a classic historical epic, the thematic and emotional arcs all grand and sweeping and operatic. It's the kind of stuff you don’t see much anymore because humans know better than to take blind, flying leaps at utopia. But these apes, freshly smart and hungry for ethos, don’t know any better than to try. And whether we watch with the desperate hope that they’ll succeed or with the nagging certainty that they’ll fail (and did I say “weather” / “or”? Of course, I meant “when” / “and”), we watch and we understand the ineluctable pain of their struggle as we do the impossible weight of its stakes. Also the horses from which they fire assault rifles while riding through fire. (3 ½ out of 4 Stars)

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