Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review: No Matter What You Do, The Dawn is Coming

By Andrew Braid

Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Gary Oldman, Judy Greer, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary
Release Date: July 11, 2014
Presented in 2D and 3D

I've seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes twice now, and I'm still kinda blown away that it exists. Not in the fact that it exists as a sequel to the surprisingly successful franchise reboot that was 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But rather I'm blown away that director and Planet of the Apes super-fan Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) really got carte blanche to spend $170 million (or nearly twice as much as the last one cost to produce) on a blockbuster that seems to spend practically its entire running time spitting in the face of the tired or familiar tropes and cliches that we've come to expect from summer blockbusters (it's literally the complete, utter antithesis to a movie like Transformers: Age of Extinction). This is a big effects-heavy action blockbuster where half the major characters speak through subtitle-translated sign language, or even say everything they need to without any dialogue at all (gasp!). This is a blockbuster action movie that, aside from a gripping opening hunting sequence, completely holds off on any kind of big-scale action sequences for two thirds of its 130-minute running time. This is a major blockbuster that doesn't sugarcoat or hand-hold, one that doesn't offer any easy answers to complex and challenging situations, one that not only inevitably leads to a downbeat conclusion but revels in it. In essence it's much in the vein of the original Planet of the Apes films, mixing a topsy-turvy populist sci-fi concept ("Dude, what if people were the ones in cages, and apes ran the world?") with relevant social commentary and an informed, ultimately pessimistic worldview. But at the same time it's freshly imbued with a new sense of purpose, backed by huge advances in special effects technology since the days of men in makeup and ape masks. There was nothing like the Planet of the Apes series back in its time: a big Hollywood movie series back when franchises were uncommon, one built around making viewers reflect upon themselves and what they believe rather than merely entertaining them with fantastical action or out-there visions of the future. Despite its surface appearances, escapism this series wasn't- this was pure science fiction through and through. Ever since the shift to the blockbuster age with Jaws and Star Wars it seemed as if there was no place for something dark and intellectually heavy like the Apes series anymore, and certainly not for a multi-movie franchise.
So it gives me great pleasure to announce that Planet of the Apes is back for a new age, and frankly it couldn't have come back at a time where it's more needed.

To say the apes have strict anti-gun laws in this movie is putting it mildly...

For those who didn't see it (though you honestly ought to if you haven't), Rise of the Planet of the Apes ends with Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow apes, now gifted with enhanced intelligence as the result of a experimental drug called the ALZ-113 (meant to cure Alzheimer's Disease), having escaped from captivity and making a new home for themselves in the forests outside of San Francisco. However it turns out the ALZ-113 is lethal to humans, and as that film ended (and as this one begins) the virus now known as the "Simian Flu" wipes out humanity by the millions and throws the world into post-apocalyptic chaos. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins 10 years later, and Caesar has become the leader of the apes' peaceful new society, leading hunts and having his good friend Maurice (Karin Konoval) help teach the laws of their new world, with one in particular standing above all: "Ape not kill ape". Caesar, whose wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) has just given birth to their second child, feels that all their building and hard work has finally paid off.
All that gets thrown through a loop when Caesar's son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and his friend have a chance run-in with humans, the first sighting of any humans in two years. Things don't get off to a good start, and Caesar makes his presence known to the colony of human survivors living in the ruins of San Francisco: he doesn't want war, but is ready to fight if he must, and doesn't want any more humans coming by their territory. The problem is the colony, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), is running out of supplies and needs to restore power to the city by accessing a hydroelectric dam that happens to be near the apes' home. While Dreyfus is desperate and unafraid to retaliate with violence, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) insists that he can work out a peace with Caesar and the apes, and will take a few days to try and reason out a truce and gain access to the dam. While it proves challenging and has its setbacks, Malcolm and his family gradually earns Caesar's trust, much to the dismay of Koba (Toby Kebbell), Caesar's second-in-command whose history of torture and lab experiments at the hands of humans blinds him with hatred. Malcolm and Caesar try to do whatever they can to convince their people to stop a conflict from breaking out, but it only takes the actions of a few individuals to spark a fire that can engulf us all...

Pictured: Gary Oldman, rehearsing for his Playboy interview

Dawn's story shares much in common with the final entry in the original Apes film series, 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes, which honestly doesn't seem like such a great sign on paper when you consider how bland, tired and thoroughly mediocre that movie was (definitely the worst of the original series- say what you will about Beneath the Planet of the Apes, what with its hardly-even-giving-a-shit Charlton Heston and all that trippy, bonkers stuff going on with telepathic mutants, at least it wasn't boring). But an intelligent, thoughtful script combined with Weta Digital's truly astounding motion-capture visual effects work elevates it eons beyond the inspiration for its genesis. The film smartly keeps the conflict between humans and apes a simple one on the surface, allowing the depth and complexity to come from the characters and their varied feelings and emotions about it- their histories, their wants and desires, their personal prejudices. It all weaves a layered tapestry of ideals that speaks to the many facets of human nature, good and bad. Both man and ape don't intrinsically want war or bloodshed, but they can easily be swayed into it through the right combination of catalysts. It's so easy to dehumanize your enemy when your enemy literally used to be mere animals, and Caesar discovers the hard way that looking at things through that "us/them" divide can blind you to those among "us" that may not be so trustworthy. This is a film where every character's decisions hold weight and impact- it makes the buildup-heavy focus of the first two thirds all the more tense, and the fateful choices made by Caesar and others in the final act all the more powerful.

"War... has... already begun..."

The cast is fantastic, with nary a weak link in sight on either the human or ape sides. Jason Clarke's Malcolm proves an intelligent, desperately idealistic leading man who really relates to Caesar in how they both feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, and it's a constant struggle not to cave from the pressure. Nick Thurston plays Caesar's son Blue Eyes with few spoken words but an abundance of subtle emotions as his more rebellious teenage instincts threaten to lead him down a seductive yet ruinous path (a scene where he breaks down to his father is short yet nonetheless heart-wrenching). Gary Oldman's Dreyfus is less some scenery-chewing antagonist that you might expect and much more a real, flawed human being who's trying his best to keep control and calm among a colony of people scared for their very future and survival. Oldman beautifully sells the character's honest and personal humanity, effectively establishing him as a human counterpart to Koba even though the film oddly avoids giving him screentime during the middle section of the film.
In fact the only real complaint I could find myself having with Dawn overall is that I kind of wished there was a bit more time with a few of the supporting characters. While characters like Malcolm's wife Ellie (Keri Russell) and son Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee) get some solid moments to work with, other characters like Maurice and Rocket find themselves wanting for screentime (also Maurice is just kind of awesome, so of course I want more scenes with him). Apparently there are a few deleted scenes lying around the cutting room floor involving some supporting characters like Caesar's wife Cornelia (who gets next to nothing to do in the final cut of the movie), and it can't help but make me wish for an extended cut to be released later. Then again, I completely understand making such cuts for the sake of the film's pacing (which flows smoothly with tension and patient buildup), and the film nails the core trio of character arcs involving Caesar, Malcolm and Koba. If you really think about it, it's probably a really good sign for the movie's quality that I actually wanted more of it- that's not something I find myself saying often.

A cute, sweet little moment that takes us out of all the moral greys and looming violence (so yeah, don't get used to it folks).

As great as the cast is overall, it's undeniable that the two major standouts here are Andy Serkis as Caesar and Toby Kebbell as Koba. Serkis' impressive showing should come as no surprise, as motion-capture's original thespian actor already commanded the screen when we were introduced to Caesar in the previous film. But Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes the character even further, having every motion, every expression on Caesar's face saying all manner of things. He is more matured this time around, wearier and more conflicted with how to handle a very dangerous and delicate situation. He is a wholly fleshed out, nuanced and spectacularly realized character brought to life through the tag-team of incredible computer animation and Serkis' master-class performance (seriously guys, at least give an honorary Oscar or something).
You wouldn't think anyone could stand toe-to-toe with Serkis (especially not in a mo-cap suit), yet Toby Kebbell comes almost out of nowhere to do exactly that. Kebbell makes Koba so much more than some easy one-note bad guy, giving him a real sense of humanity (never mind the irony of that statement considering his hatred of humans). We see him as a wounded soul, one whose many scars have made it impossible for him to ever forget his hatred of humans, let alone move past it. His feelings are entirely justified and sympathetic, and even though he opts for the violent path he really does want to do what's best for his fellow apes. This makes it all the more horrifying when that violent path and thirst for vengeance corrupts him, as his actions become increasingly monstrous once he first steps over the line. It's a fantastic performance that stands as the best villain put to screen so far this year, a dark turn that you won't soon forget. (I'm suddenly really excited that this guy is playing Doctor Doom in the new Fantastic Four movie next year...)

Koba easily stands as the best villain of any movie this year, frightening and ruthless yet also chillingly sympathetic in his anger and rage.

In a year brimming with great science fiction films such as Edge of Tomorrow, the "I desperately need to see it whenever it actually comes out here" Snowpiercer, and the "sure to be awesome because come on, it's Christopher Nolan" Interstellar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes may very well have just become the year's frontrunner. Not only does it stand on its own merits as a thoughtful, nuanced and profoundly emotional picture on its own merits, but it essentially becomes The Dark Knight to its predecessor's Batman Begins, growing on the foundation laid out by its already great predecessor and ultimately exceeding it in pretty much every possible way. As his third feature film Dawn also proves once and for all that Matt Reeves truly is a great director who, in embracing all the things he loves about the long-running Apes franchise, has ended up making the best film in the entire series. By the time the film reaches its beautiful, sobering conclusion (one that fits the Apes series to a T), you'll be left breathlessly questioning what's going to come next.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10

+ A big-budget summer blockbuster that feels almost nothing like one- patient, intelligent and subtle entertainment
+ The visual effects work really is incredible ("Oscar-worthy" doesn't even summarize it)
+ A classic-style Planet of the Apes film through and through, with tense pacing, sobering darkness and thoughtful science fiction themes
+ A simple yet gripping conflict flooded with complex, multidimensional characters
+ Excellent lead performances from mo-cap master Andy Serkis as Caesar and Toby Kebbell as Koba
+ That ending... just perfect...

- A bit more time with the great supporting cast would have been nice (despite slowing the pace)