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Apes do not want war!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Perhaps the most damning thing one can say about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that, despite featuring 99% less of the ubiquitous James Franco (he’s ubiquitous, so he has to be in there somewhere), it’s not as good as its predecessor.  That’s not fault of the filmmaking, nor the performances, but a script that is unable to strike out beyond the pedestrian premise of “Can warring tribes ever broker lasting peace?” And yet, if ever there was a movie that is more than the some of its parts, this is it. Matt Reeves has made a Planet of the Apes movie to be proud of, and its greatest asset, as with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is the mo-capped apes themselves who engage in much more full-bodied and emotionally satisfying manner than their human counterparts.


This may in part be because what is typed on the page, courtesy of Mark Bomback, (whose patchy career includes of a number of so-so to lame remakes – Total Recall, Race to Witch Mountain – and less than perfectly formed sequels – Die Hard 4.0, The Wolverine) and returning duo Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, can only ever be the loosest of templates as so much must be expressed by body language and on screen interaction. The perfunctory dialogue that mars almost every human relationship is an asset for the apes, as their words are intentionally perfunctory, half-formed or don’t elicit the same “Did he really just say that?” response when subtitled.


The opening titles pick up where the end titles of Rise left off, charting the path of the virus that pegs the demise of humanity. This use of maps to show its progress is effective, the “documentary” footage maybe less so; the inclusion of the current US President is wearily predictable, and has a kind of reverse verisimilitude (you end up wondering what speech they swiped the snippet from). Mainly, its because this summary device has become over-familiar of late; it’s easy to make it work, difficult to make it stand out. We had it a month or so ago in Godzilla, which also gave us its own (localised) post-apocalyptic cityscape. Despite the global events it follows, Dawn’s canvas is altogether smaller than that movie, and not just in screen ratio.  


For the most part these choices of scale make sense, and it’s a better movie when it tries to avoid blockbuster spectacle. This is a more intimate drama; as noted, it depicts rival factions battling over a small area, rather than whole coastlines ripped asunder. I liked the mention of nuclear power stations melting down in the preamble, since this is usually conveniently ignored in tales of survivors of the collapse of civilisation. Less plausible is that none of the humans seem to be suffering ill effects  from this 10 years on. Perhaps they aren’t in a hot spot? I wondered if, the acknowledgement of the nuclear age was a wink to Beneath the Planet of the Apes and its mutant worshippers of the atom bomb (also revisited in the final chapter). I’d be all in favour of the series visiting something so extravagantly sci-fi in a later instalment (I’m doubtful, however, the watchword of these movies so far has been “grounded”). But, as with the humans herded into cages by apes, it’s a nice subtle call back to the originals.


From there we move onto an encounter with Caesar (Andy Serkis, in another outstanding performance; just occasionally, there’s a glimmer of Gollum in there, but what great actor doesn’t tip us his with his tics and rhythms?) and a hunting expedition in which we’re introduced to his main compatriots. I’ll return to that, but the best feature announced in this sequence is the confidence to tell stories in words and pictures rather than dialogue. The contrast with the lack of finesse in the humans’ interactions couldn’t be more acute. They are making a go of things in the ruins of San Francisco, determined to bring power back to their settlement through repairing a hydroelectric dam… that just happens to be in ape territory.


Dawn’s humans can’t cut it, not only against the apes but also in terms of maintaining audience interest. I suspect most would agree that people power isn’t the strongest element of Rise, but this is more down to the anodyne presence of the ubiquitous Franco than anything inherently weak about his character’s relationship with Caesar. Indeed, the plotline involving father John Lithgow is quite touching and well developed. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes might be the first movie in which someone (Caesar) goes into a nostalgic reverie for James Franco, and thusly Gary Oldman’s character may have a point when he denies apes as an intelligent species. Jason Clarke is a much more interesting actor than Franco, but Malcolm is wafer thin in conceptualisation and motivation. He’s the sympathetic human, the surrogate Franco (what a terrible burden!) It was possible to believe in the connection between Caesar and Rodman in Rise, but when Caesar swears friendship to Malcom it comes across as not so much a lapse in judgement (of which more shortly), but premature sincerity as there has been little on screen to justify such depth of feeling. And, for all his qualities as a performer, Clarke as an actor doesn’t give off huggy-feely sincerity.


The other actors playing the humans are also unable to give much substance to their slender characters. Gary Oldman can do little with his protesting-too-much leader. It’s a slightly more youthful Oldman role than of late, but he disappears into it much as he did Commissioner Gordon. There was a time when you didn’t expect less than fireworks from the actor. Now it’s generally surprised if he doesn’t send you into a snooze. You can’t blame him for not being able to make a silk purse out of a character who stubbornly refuses to believe apes are smart, has a token weepy scene over an iPad (that’s his motivation, right there!) and come the end just wants to blow shit up, but Oldman did take the damn dirty part.


Fringe’s Kirk Acevedo at least makes the most of playing up unadulterated anti-ape bigotry, but there’s a fine line between enjoyable cliché and the groan inducing (such as when an adorable CGI baby ape poddles over to his gun-concealing toolbox and Acevedo inevitably goes ballistic at it). Keri Russell is as wholesomely pretty as ever, but entirely redundant while Kodi Smit-McPhee, who looks increasingly like Jay Baruchel’s little brother, gets a nice scene with orang-utan Maurice. Unfortunately, the father-son-surrogate mom dynamic between Lucas, Russell, and Smith-McPhee is lacklustre. The devices used to engender trust and its breaking between apes and humans arrive in a package of maximum familiarity (the humans help Caesar’s wife – thank goodness for human antibiotics!, the humans get trapped in a rock fall but the apes fetch them out – hurrah!) It’s really a tribute to Reeves’ direction that so much of this gets by relatively unscathed. In lesser hands the corn would be dripping from their ears.


But what doesn’t work for the humans does for the apes. The interactions, relieved of the terribly clunky exposition that plagues (particularly Oldman’s) their less hirsute counterparts, are on occasions even subtle. The relationship between Caesar and Koba is especially compelling. The latter, a victim of laboratory cruelty and with the many scars to prove it, is masterfully performed by Toby Kebbell (who looks like he may well break it big in the next couple of years, even if its as pure villainy). Kebbell replaces Christopher Gordon, who played Koba in Rise, and delivers a superbly imagined ape; his features are not unlike those of Spike in Gremlins, midway through his water fountain meltdown at the climax, and Koba’s progress from barely suppressed violence (towards humans, and then apes) and reluctant submission (to Caesar; the hand gestures and body language signifying dominance are marvellous) to out-and-out infamy (his shrewdly executed overthrow is marred only by not hitting his target dead centre).


Whenever Koba is onscreen, all eyes are off Caesar. That’s really an indication of how good Kebbell is. There are some beautifully rendered moments involving the character; the much-trailed sequence in which he overcomes two drunk human guards through putting on a gormless circus ape act is both funny and chilling, his face down of a tank on horseback should be ridiculous but it’s near-sublime. If there’s a criticism, it’s that the writers push the damaged ape into uber-villain territory at the end. He’s crafty enough that he should know killing his own kind in full view, and with considerable panache, is a daft move; the picture arguably doesn’t need this development as there’s sufficient meat in an inevitable showdown with Caesar, and it puts a spotlight on the broad strokes that strong acting and direction have done so much to conceal. Likewise, the fight between Koba and Caesar is an unnecessary set piece too far; I know I’d have been quite satisfied with something a bit more cerebral at this point, rather than giddy acrobatics.


That’s fairly minor criticism set against how good most of the apes material is, though. Karin Konoval (no, I had no idea he was a she) is enormously sympathetic as the huge, sensitive and wise orang-utan Maurice. Nick Thurston has to go through a standard troubled teen plotline as Blue Eyes, Cornelius’ rebellious son, but there’s enough genuine reason to doubt his father to make the journey a convincing one. In contrast, the wonderful Judy Greer gets a non-role as Caesar’s missus.


One of the more intriguing elements of Dawn is that, even though the tale is wholly linear and lacking in depth in terms of its relationships, it gives us a hero protagonist who makes the wrong decisions at almost every turn. Koba may be twisted with hate, but he’s spot-on about the humans’ motivations (for all his nominal good guy status, Malcolm never comes clean with Caesar about what his colleagues are up to; if he had, it might have curtailed Koba’s coup), and Caesar’s forlorn hope that a fragile peace can exist is completely wrong-footed. Even if his deranged lieutenant didn’t hinder Caesar, he’d still face the insurmountable obstacle that Malcolm is very much the exception in terms of humans looking for a peaceful answer. You can’t fault the leader of the apes for reaching for the best of all worlds, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a strong leader. 


By the end he must resort to a technical opt-out as justification for breaking the cardinal ape rule he imposed (Koba isn’t an ape because he doesn’t uphold ape values, the very values Caesar is breaking by killing him). It makes for (hopefully) a more interesting and flawed character in the next sequel; Caesar may be undergoing a Michael Corleone-like arc as he descends into the world of compromises dictated by any seat of power. While it’s a positive that Dawn doesn’t go down the route of installing its main character with easy virtues, one is left wondering how conscious this is and how much a consequence of getting from A to B with the plotting; purely because there is no semblance of nuance elsewhere in the writing.


Reeves' direction is unselfconscious; servicing the story is always at the forefront of his mind, which may be why, even though this is in Real 3D, one is barely aware of the extra dimension. One-time Alan Parker right-hand cinematographer Michael Seresin delivers a dank, rain-drenched landscape of forests and decaying architecture. It’s one in which the CGI additions are nigh seamless. Sure, we’re aware that these aren’t physical creatures (although Maurice and Koba are especially convincing; the closer the animators come to human features the less confident the results are; consequently, Blue Eyes is the weakest of the designs) but, in contrast to many CGI-infested movies, we are so invested in their creations that it scarcely impacts our enjoyment. Michael Giacchino’s score is every bit as good as we’ve come to expect from the composer, who has seamlessly made the jump from TV to movies.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not quite Rise’s equal. It lacks, well, the narrative hook that comes from Caesar’s path to a state of awareness and rebellion. In its place, we are presented with bog standard battling (which is essentially what we saw in the last and meagerest of the original movies). So it’s a testament to Reeves’ work that Dawn gets as close as it does. The disappointing tack for a third instalment would be War of the Planet of the Apes (what with the army on the move at the end of Dawn), since there would be no greater potential for narrative intrigue there than here. The problem with the linear trajectory embraced in this re-envisioning of the series is that the many of the more philosophical concepts have been ironed out along with the jigsaw element of mystery. Rise caught a break with its premise, but someone needs to come on board with a plot the conceptually matches the scope of the material. For now, though, Dawn is much better than anyone might reasonably expect of such a meat-and-potatoes narrative.


***1/2

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