Monday, July 14, 2014

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES a Stunning, Twilight Zone Reflection of Our World


- I recently watched through the old Planet of the Apes sequels from the 70's and early 80's, and though they are cheesy, campy fun, there's also a sort of heartbreaking element about them. Following in the tradition of the Rod Serling-penned original, the sequels contain elements of social commentary (as all the best sci-fi does) that, remarkably and semi-shockingly, is as relevant today as it was 30+ years ago. It leads you to wonder: are we as a species doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again? Can we resist the  temptation for war, discrimination, subjugation, greed, corruption, and violence? Or will our darker inclinations inevitably cause us to live out endless variations on the same tragic story? The original Apes franchise - with its gonzo time-travel logic, ruminates on this very question in a not-so-subtle fashion. Annihilation is coming for us all, and it will be of our own doing.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES continues with this theme, offering a starkly cynical view of humanity that feels all-too accurate at the moment. In fact, the events of the film so closely mirror the outbreak of the current wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence that you wonder if director Matt Reeves and his team of writers didn't create the movie with some sort of supernatural prescience. But then you realize: all of this has happened before, and all of this will likely happen again.

Let me first just state: the first in the relaunched Apes franchise, RISE, is one of my absolute favorite big blockbuster films of the last several years. It was jaw-droppingly good - a total stunner. And even more remarkably, its sequel is just as good. I was bummed to hear that Rupert Wyatt, who did such a bang-up job directing Rise, would not be returning for the sequel. But Matt Reeves totally steps up to the plate and knocks it out of the park. I was a fan of Reeves going into this: I thought Cloverfield showed a director with a lot of promise, and I thought that Let Me In was as good as an American remake of the original film could possibly have hoped to be. But DAWN shows us that Reeves has what it takes to do big, blockbuster filmmaking on par with the absolute best in the biz. In fact, I think with this movie, Reeves may have actually catapulted himself ahead of his buddy JJ Abrams on the list of exciting sci-fi directors (we'll see how Star Wars goes). Reeves builds on what Wyatt did with the first film, but also crafts a movie that looks absolutely stunning in each and every scene. Every moment feels big and weighty and iconic - even the quiet ones. And the entire film bristles with a moody, ominous intensity.

The film focuses on the apes much more so than Rise. Set ten years after the end of the first film, we learn that the virus hinted at in Rise has now wiped out much of humanity. Ceaser and his fellow intelligent apes live in the forest outside of San Francisco, and it's been two years since they've seen a human. For all they know, the humans are wiped out completely. The film opens with a group of apes on a hunt - a fascinating look at this strange new world in which Ceaser's apes live in a tribal culture away from humans. They have slowly learned speech and writing, and have a basic set of laws that they adhere to ("Ape does not kill ape."). The opening hunt scene, and subsequent scenes with the apes, show us a primitive society that is nonetheless quickly evolving in a way that mirrors the path of humans. To Reeve's credit though, he never shies away from the otherness of the apes - large portions of the movie are subtitled (the apes primarily still talk with sign language), and the movie does not portray the apes as the human-esque, upright-walking creatures of the original films.

Eventually, Ceaser's tribe faces upheaval in the form of a group of humans who come across the tribe as they search for an abandoned dam that could be the key to their community's survival. They come from a community that has formed in the ruins of San Francisco, that is on the verge of exhausting their power supply. Very quickly, we see the parallel, opposing attitudes that exist on both the human and ape side of the fence. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his wife Ellie (Keri Russell) try to peacefully explain their situation to Ceaser. They want to coexist. But the hothead of the group, Carver (Kirk Avecedo), nearly ruins everything, as his temper and hatred of the apes (he blames them for the virus outbreak) clouds his rational mind. Meanwhile, the community's leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), sees the apes as a threat to his people and sees war as inevitable. Among the apes, Ceaser is willing to work with the humans and let them repair the dam. But most apes saw only the darker side of humans - not the friendlier side that Ceaser experienced in Rise. Chief among Ceaser's doubters is Koba (a motion-captured Toby Kebbell), a scarred ape who harbors deep resentment over his mistreatment as a lab monkey for many years, before having been freed by Ceaser's uprising.

Seeing how small events, misunderstandings, and agenda-laced manipulations bring on the inevitable escalation of violence between human and ape is a scary, legitimately disturbing mirror-image of our own reality. What's so striking is that no characters in the film are insane or completely wrong in their thinking. All have some real basis for their fears and hatreds. All feel justified in doing what they feel they have to in order to protect their own people, and it's not a huge stretch to see why they feel that way. In so many films, we see battles played out in a cartoonish way in which all the violence is okay, because we're so clearly rooting for a good guy to win out over an evil bad guy. But here, the violence - while spectacular and visceral - is also the kind that puts knots in your stomach. We don't actually want either side to win - we just want them to stop fighting and make peace. And yet, the peace that we root for seems hopelessly out of reach - and its proponents - like Ceaser and Malcolm - seem almost naive for pursuing it. There is simply too much fear, rage, and desperation for peace to win out. The drums of war are too loud, even if the fighting is clearly a zero sum game for all.

As Ceaser, Andy Serkis gives his most remarkable motion-captured performance yet. Even in a film filled to the brim with uber-talented live-action actors, Ceaser is, far and away, the star. What Serkis - in tandem with the film's CGI animators - does here is nothing short of astonishing. There is no uncanny valley. Ceaser is simply another character on screen, and a great one at that. He is an epic hero, a boy turned king, a father, husband, and champion. Serkis' movements, emotion, and personality are all captured and brought to life. If this isn't acting, I don't know what is. Hail Ceaser and hail Andy Serkis, says I.

I've also got to really single out the similarly amazing motion-capture work done by Toby Kebbell as Koba. Koba is simply a great character and a pretty epic villain. The best kind of villain, who truly believes that what he is doing is right and noble, even as he crosses line after line. There is a real unhinged, tragic quality to Koba, exemplified in some scenes both funny and disturbing, in which Koba realizes that the way to trick humans into thinking he's not a threat is to act in a stereotypical circus-monkey manner. To have a CGI motion-captured character in these scenes, acting outwardly silly, but with a real threat of barely-concealed danger and anger in his eyes - is truly incredible.

All of the movie's motion-capture work is phenomenal. In general, the apes looks remarkably real and are remarkably expressive, and they are seamlessly integrated into the film's various environments, and alongside its human actors. In fact, I think it's safe to say that DAWN has some of the flat-out best visual f/x ever seen, to this point, in a blockbuster film. I found myself continually wowed by the action on screen and the sophistication and scope of what we were seeing. But again, as much as I credit the CGI artists here, I also credit Reeves for making it all sing. The action in the film is incredibly shot. It can be brutal, and it can be elegant. We get chaotic large-scale battles and epic one-on-one fights. We get apes on horseback, apes in tanks, and apes majestically swinging from treetop to treetop. It's all filmed with sweeping grace and engrossing immersiveness (and sidenote: the 3D in the film is very, very good - a must-see in 3D if possible). I'll also mention the excellent score by composer Michael Giacchino. It mixes classic orchestral stuff with some appropriately retro bits of atmospheric, space-oddity weirdness that evoke the original Planet of the Apes.

Clarke, Russell, Oldman, and the rest of the human actors all do more-than-solid work. Clarke is a great presence, and Russell maximizes somewhat limited screentime by really bringing a lot of empathy to the character of Ellie. There's a subplot involving Ellie slowly being accepted as a surrogate mom by Malcom's son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) that feels a little cut-short, but what is there gives the characters some nice dimensionality. Oldman's Dreyfus is also an interesting character in that he's fairly rational, just unable to see the bigger picture, the forest for the trees. From our god's-eye perspective as viewers, we can sense the futility of Dreyfus' desire for aggression. But we also have to wonder what we'd do were we in his shoes.

That sort of creeping dread - the idea that we too, as individuals and as a society - might also succumb to the desperate cycle of violence that these characters give in to - is what makes DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES such profound, evocative, hard-hitting sci-fi. Every day on the news, we see competition for resources escalate into violence. We see misunderstandings and isolated acts of aggression escalate into full-scale war. We see deep-seated hatreds prevent us from seeing people as individuals, instead adopting an "us vs. them" mentality, in which we neatly divide people into faceless sides. "They" are bad. "They" are evil. "They" hate us, and therefore can't be trusted. It might sound silly, but in this film's conflict between species, we see a dark mirror held up to our own everyday existence. The magic trick of DAWN is that, without ever explicitly spelling it out, it hammers home the realization that the very concept of apes vs. humans is all one great lie. Once the apes gain intelligence, they are susceptible to all the same faults as the humans they take pains to differentiate themselves from. They are as seduced by the power of the gun. They are as prone to corruption. They are as likely to act in self-interest while claiming to act for the greater good. The one real difference, the one real advantage for the apes, is that they are still at a stage where they are not reliant on technology, and can therefore thrive in a world that had quickly descended into primitiveness. But it's only a matter of time - and evolution - until the apes have that same crutch.

A lot to think about for a summer sci-fi blockbuster. And that's why these new Apes films have, I think, transcended the genre to become something truly special. These are movies that have a lot to say, even as they dazzle with bar-raising visuals. DAWN not only raises the bar visually, but it raises the bar for the series, and paves the way for a third film that is now among my most-anticipated. DAWN masterfully follows in the grand tradition of the Planet of the Apes films (and in the tradition of original Apes writer Rod Serling) - for it is a profound, Twilight Zone reflection of our own world, and an absolute must-see movie.

My Grade: A

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