17 July 2014

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES- Review

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a surprise hit towards the end of 2011's summer blockbuster season, with terrific special effects and compelling plotting which married character development and dramatic irony with awesome action and that bit where a gorilla fought a helicopter. Just as that film borrowed from the fourth original film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, so Dawn of the Planet of the Apes borrows from the fifth film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

Ten winters on from the events of Rise, Caesar and his fellow apes have used their augmented intelligence to build a peaceful society in the forests of San Francisco. Mankind has become all but extinct after the chemical compound from the previous film turned out to be lethal to humans, so the apes are surprised and mistrustful when a group of human interlopers appear to threaten their stability. The humans, led by army veteran Dreyfus, are just as wary, having dubbed the pandemic "simian flu". Luckily, Caesar and a human named Malcolm are more pragmatic and together they try and foster a peaceful co-existence between the surviving humans and the thriving apes.

With the courage of Rupert Wyatt's convictions in the hugely acclaimed Rise, director Matt Reeves takes to Dawn in an unusual fashion for a big studio movie- with a 15 minute subtitled sequence of ape sign language that establishes what's changed for Caesar and co since we last saw them. Andy Serkis is top-billed as the lead chimp this time too, which signifies, together with the opening sequence, that this one is about the apes as much as (if not more than) the human characters.

The other thing that follows naturally from the first film, but plays out even more impressively, is that there's never a sense that the conclusion of the film is pre-determined, even though it's in the goddamn title. Ape domination isn't something that Caesar is particularly striving for and just as the road to this one was paved with good intentions, (both the simian flu casualties and the intelligent apes were the result of James Franco's character researching a cure for Alzheimer's disease) so the characters continue being unable to get out of the way of their own peace and harmony.

The humans are trying to restart a hydroelectric dam in ape territory so that they can have access to some limited power and once Caesar permits them to do so, the rollercoaster is set in motion. The film is full of moments of either tranquillity or mutual understanding which are suddenly shattered, whether accidentally or deliberately, by a character's actions. If any of these moments lasted a little longer, Caesar and Malcolm might just get that peace for which they're both striving. But yeah, there's that title.

Make no mistake- the story, by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, is still structurally air-tight, but the way in which the script, (co-written with Mark Bomback) passes off this escalation as a believably random and chaotic series of events is a big part of what makes this such a gripping sequel. Even though the apes are the only returning characters from the previous film, (including my personal favourite, Maurice the orangutan) the new human characters are just as crucial to the direction of the narrative. Having said that, it wouldn't be unfair to say that they're also a little underpowered compared to the apes.

Jason Clarke is a solid leading man, but like Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Godzilla, the more overt parallels between himself and Caesar don't necessarily make him an engaging character in his own right. Likewise, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee, who play Malcolm's love interest and son, make less of an impression than Cornelia and Blue Eyes, Caesar's mate and offspring. Gary Oldman gets one or two good scenes as Dreyfus, but he's largely on hand to shout at his subjects, which is far less than you can say of his shit-stirring counterpart.

The disfigured Koba is briefly glimpsed at the end of Rise, being freed from the Gen-Sys labs during Caesar's insurrection. Played here by Toby Kebbell, the intervening years have turned him into a portmanteau of Shane from The Walking Dead and Heath Ledger's Joker, all embodied in one terrifying chunk of monkey. Kebbell comes damn close to upstaging Serkis here, but both of the performance-capture turns are superb, with Caesar's wisdom making a solid counterpoint to Koba's manipulative ways and psychopathic anger. Both have brute strength on their side and the tension between them comes to blows, but it's telling that the most electric scenes in the movie are the ones in which they get all political with each other.

Even so, it couldn't be said that either Koba or Dreyfus are baddies. Sure, they're antagonists by default, but the whole set-up is rich in conflict, even between characters who might well be allies in other circumstances than their current predicament. Without the corporate masters of the previous instalment, Reeves has made a film in which the stakes are altogether more complex and delicately balanced. That's not to say he doesn't relish the opportunity to put an ape on horseback, dual-wielding machine guns in the midst of a chaotic skirmish in the second act, but then this series of reboots is terrific for iconic moments like that, as an emotional return to an iconic location from Rise also attests.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has been described as "a peace film" more than an action/war movie and the complex story follows through on that promise. Everything feels so poised on the precipice of war and terror and carnage that you really root for the characters to find another outcome. Such is the strength of characters like Caesar and Koba, you forget you're watching CG characters, though the superb special effects work helps with that too. The human characters probably need a little more meat on their bones, but the inter-species drama both escalates and deepens with this worthy follow-up, before pointing the way to an even darker conclusion to the trilogy.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is now showing, in 2D and 3D, at cinemas nationwide.
------------------------------------------------------------------
If you've seen 
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, why not share your comments below? Title suggestions for part three are welcome too- I vote The Noses on the Faces of the Ladies of the Planet of the Apes.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

Jay Moussa-Mann said...

Unfortunately, I couldn't forget that I was watching CG characters...on horseback! I think, for me, the main reason the first film worked and this one didn't was because in the first film the apes were still apes and there was nothing in this new film that would encourage me to take the massive leap with their progression. Also there was far too much action and not enough character depth for me. Some of the best moments (like Ash being thrown over the balcony and the humans and apes meeting for the first time) got lost in everything else when those moments could have been built on.