Saturday, July 12, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Sets the Standard for What the Summer Blockbuster Should Aspire To

People often forget that the whole idea of the summer blockbuster started with Jaws, which is a film that is far more interested in character than it is with spectacular set-pieces and action. However, Jaws does have those things, and as time has worn on the spectacle of summer films have often been at the cost of character. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a rallying cry to the importance of focusing on creating great characters and letting that drive the plot rather than the other way around. In an age of soulless action fare like the Transformers series, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes feels like one of the most intelligent and adult pieces of genre entertainment available.

It's been ten years since the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar (Andy Serkis) has formed a peaceful community of apes out in the forest, and it has been two years since any humans have even been seen. However, once a party of humans being led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) cross into Caesar's territory, tensions flare and the road to war seems inevitable.

I missed Rise when it was in theaters, and after catching it on home video, I knew I wasn't going to make the same mistake with Dawn. Everything that worked in the first film (Andy Serkis's brilliant performance as Caesar, the jaw-dropping digital work by WETA Studios, the conviction and dedication to the execution of the story) is amplified in Dawn. The things that didn't work in Rise (dreadfully bad human characters and performances, an upbeat ending that doesn't gel with the rest of the series, a slower pace due to having to build Caesar up to the protagonist role) have been excised or greatly improved upon. Jason Clarke is a perfect reflection of Caesar (they both have a teenage son and want nothing more than to protect their families), and he never tries to vie for the main character position. The humans are just prominent enough to feel necessary to the plot, but never to the point where they are taking away from the apes.

And this movie is all about the apes. Seeing how they are well on their way to establishing their own society is fascinating, especially since it is all presented in the first fifteen minutes of the film without a single human present. We see the apes hunting, teaching each other and socializing. And this all takes place with apes performing sign language with subtitles. It's hard not to give kudos to director Matt Reeves for making American audiences (who are notorious for avoiding subtitled films like they were carriers for the AIDS virus) have to read subtitles for a good third of the film.

While Andy Serkis is just as reliable and enthralling to watch as he was in Rise, the real star of the film is Toby Kebbell as Caesar's second-in-command Koba. Being a victim of numerous human experiments, Koba has a deep-seated hatred and distrust of humans. His fear and anger end up making him the antagonist of the picture, but it's in Kebbell's performance that you can't help but understand and sympathize with Koba, even when he begins taking actions that are profoundly wrong. While Serkis deserves the recognition he gets, I hope Kebbell's performance as Koba helps solidify the argument that motion capture performers are just as worthy as actors who aren't performing under digital makeup.

That digital makeup is easily the pinnacle of effects work, as WETA Studios has outdone themselves once again. "Effects" isn't the right word for what they do, because as soon as the first ape is onscreen, I was lost in these characters as just that: characters. While I can acknowledge how marvelous the work is, it's not a distracting factor. My brain processed these apes as real, and that's a feat that is rare in our CGI abundant cinema landscape.

If Rise was about our mistreatment of animals (specifically apes, our species' closest relative, as experimental test subjects), then Dawn is about how guns lead to the dissolution of possible peace. It's impossible to ignore what the film is saying about guns and the harm they cause. In that regard, all the action involving guns in the film doesn't feel glorified. In fact, the big raid on the human city is shot more like a war film than an action set-piece. There are a number of chilling shots (aided by Michael Giacchino's masterful score) that evoke feelings of horror rather than fist-pumping excitement. The scenes are still compelling on a visceral level, but there's nothing glorious about any of it. The violence is portrayed as ugly and brutal, and that makes it all the more impacting.

It's kind of serendipitous that I saw Snowpiercer the day before I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, as they both fulfill a lot of the same desires I have as a moviegoer. Both are more focused on character and substance than empty style and spectacle. They both are science fiction films that seem basic at first glance, but are deeply crafted and rewarding on an intellectual level. They are dark and adult-minded, but without completely succumbing to a grimness that would make them totally impossible to enjoy. If this is where mainstream science fiction is headed, I am overjoyed.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the best movie of the summer (so far. Only Guardians of the Galaxy looks like it could compete) and is surely going to be one of my top ten favorite films of the year. It's a sequel that does everything right, and leaves me yet again clamoring for more stories in the universe the filmmakers have created. If every summer at the movies could be like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I'd be much more optimistic about the future of American mainstream film.

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