Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Back in 2011, just before Rise of the Planet of the Apes premiered, there was no reason to expect anything great. The original franchise had sputtered out after a string of terrible sequels, with the first film generally considered a B-movie sci-fi classic but not much more. A big-budget 2001 remake, directed by Tim Burton and starring Mark Wahlberg, attempted to make the franchise work again, but audiences kept their paws off those damn dirty apes. So why, then, should there have been any expectation for a new version that's really a prequel and stars James Franco and Freida Pinto, and debuts in August, the summer movie season's unceremonious dumping ground?

Except that it actually turned out to be really good, particularly thanks to a strong script, director Rupert Wyatt's terrific direction, and Andy Serkis' stunning motion-capture performance as Caesar, the chimpanzee who would lead the ape revolution. In fact, the film was quite possibly the best major blockbuster of that summer, and ended up on this blog's year-end top 10 list, a distinction that even I would have never supposed would happen at the beginning of the year.

So with expectations now far above the base level that greeted Rise..., the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, has a lot to live up to.

More after the jump.

The film avoids several major hurdles by beginning years after the end of the first film, with the world's human population catastrophically reduced to a few small colonies thanks to the simian flu virus. The San Francisco pocket, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), is running out of fuel to keep the electricity running. A team, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), heads into the Muir Forest to restart a dam nearby. The only hang-up: Caesar's army has grown into a full society, operating on the assumption that all humans were dead. When one of the humans, Carver (Kirk Acevedo), shoots one of the apes, it threatens to start an all-out war between humans and apes.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes proves itself to be equally intelligent to its predecessor, with new-to-the-franchise director Matt Reeves mixing thrilling action sequences with thoughtful social messages. In Rise..., it was medical ethics and the question of how far is too far when it comes to medical research. Here, the issue is one of tolerance and gun control, with Caesar rejecting all use of guns by apes and his second-in-command, Koba (Toby Kebbel), arguing for their necessity. The best moments in Dawn..., in fact, are the ones that focus on this Shakespearean power struggle between Caesar and Koba, each having a different vision for the future of ape society. It's a film that's propelled not just by social themes, but, more fascinatingly, societal ones. Dawn... is, essentially, a film about the growing pains of a new society. If Rise… was the story of revolution, then Dawn… asks "what now?," and doesn't necessarily provide any easy answers.

This is buoyed, first and foremost, by Serkis' remarkable performance. Even more so than the first film, Serkis and the team of animators behind Caesar have crafted a wholly incredible character that makes an affecting protagonist. This Caesar is still idealistic, but he's a lot more hardened by the intervening years between films. He has a son now, and he's been tasked with leading the ape settlement while still being a father. By the look on his face, leading a rebellion against the humans was the easy part. It's a testament to the talents of Serkis and the animators that they make Caesar the most human character in the film, and fully invest the audience in his external and internal struggles.

Just as in the first film, Dawn…'s biggest weakness is its human characters. Though Clarke does an admirable job with the role of Malcolm, there's never enough there for him to feel like more than a stock hero. He fares the best of the human actors: Oldman's character is too one-note villain to make much of an impact, and Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee are given little else to do than look awestruck. In fairness, the film's primary interest is in the apes, but the film tends to drag whenever the focus shifts to the human characters. A little more investment there would make the conflict more devastating.

There's a lot of good in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, especially when the film focuses on the apes and sets up a number of terrifically-staged action sequences. It continues a trend this summer of intelligent blockbusters that provoke just as well as they entertain. It seemed improbable that a new Planet of the Apes franchise would earn that distinction, yet just as Caesar proves in the film, these apes are full of surprises. A

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