Monday, July 21, 2014

New movie review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Caesar, played by Andy Serkis, commands his fellow apes in the opening scene of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The most impressive aspect of Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the summer’s best popcorn flick by a wide margin, is its courage to stand on the strength of its convictions. Building on the foundation set by 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Reeves and writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver construct a world of political intrigue, harrowing violence, and difficult choices – effectively mirroring our reality in more ways than they could have known at the time.

After the title sequence explains what transpired between the end of the first film and the beginning of this one – the flu-like virus that sparked the apes’ intelligence has wiped out most of humanity – the audience is dropped square in the middle of a new and unfamiliar world. The apes Caesar led into Muir Woods at the end of Rise have built a utopian enclave in which they are free to live as they see fit, blissfully unaware of whether any humans survived the simian flu or not. Some did.

The filmmakers then make the daring choice to focus their story on the apes. This $170 million tent pole takes as its subject a band of rebel apes rather than the inhabitants of one of the last outposts of human civilization. It is a brave, bold decision, and it is also the correct decision. The broad strokes are there in the title. This is the story of how the Planet of the Apes came to be, not of how the humans put up one hell of a fight.

But one could easily envision that version of the movie, a version in which the humans fight to preserve or rather to reclaim their dominance – their dominion over the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea, as it were. In this hypothetical iteration of the film, the heroes would be Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, and Keri Russell. They play the human protagonists whose attempts to restore power via a hydroelectric dam in the apes’ territory kick off the events of the plot.

There would be action galore and thrills aplenty. The movie would entertain. It would appeal to our desire to escape for a while into a dark, cool theater and watch actors play out an enjoyable fantasy. It would be a fun and diverting experience, as pleasant as reading a paperback at the beach. But it would not be a great film. This is a great film, opting to concern itself with ideas, politics, war, and our very humanity. It does not sidestep these concepts but confronts them head on and is better for it.

The star is Andy Serkis as Caesar, who has fought and won everything he ever wanted and now must struggle to hold onto it against threats from within and without. Midway through the first film, Caesar poses the question: “What is Caesar?” Ten years on, it is clear he still grapples with this, and the events of Dawn force him to face who he is and what that means. He is a super-intelligent ape raised by humans and possessing what we might consider an essential humanness. But what the world sees, both the humans and his kin, is an ape.

In this way, film’s technological prowess and Serkis’ brilliant performance coalesce into a beautifully resonant expression of theme. The visual effects bring the apes to life in ways never before possible, and the actors, Serkis in particular, imbue them with something at once raw and refined, human and transcendent.

It is a metaphor proposed by the film itself: Technology made these apes what they are, but it cannot change the core of who they are. Serkis is able to portray an ape because of advances in digital effects, but he is able to portray Caesar because he is a gifted actor, and that is what a complex, flawed, thinking, feeling being such as Caesar requires.

As Caesar wrestles with the internal dilemma of what he is and what he needs to be, his external world begins to crumble. He wishes to allow the humans into ape territory so that they may restore power with the promise of peace. Detractors within his camp see this as Caesar giving in to a long-held desire to be accepted as human rather than the measured actions of someone with a clear view of the future.

Caesar envisions a world in which humans and apes peacefully co-exist, and he sees the sacrifices that must be made on both sides to achieve this aim. But it is the fate of all those capable of seeing both sides of an issue to be accused of lacking conviction and the tragedy of the masses to fall under the spell of the accusers. There is something visceral in righteous indignation that well-reasoned moral centrism cannot match, and thus beings the war.

The last 45 minutes or so of this two-hour-plus movie constitute a well-conceived and admirably executed action picture. The battles are stunning feats of visual construction predicated upon epic acts of city-wide destruction, including one long take with a camera mounted on a tank that is among the best I have ever seen. Yet, the virtuosity of the action would mean nothing without the deeply rooted emotional conflicts at its core.

Here is an action film with more on its mind than violence and nihilism. That alone is an achievement of which it is worth standing up and taking notice. More impressive is that it is able to take those preoccupations and translate them into an entertaining, thought-provoking thriller that achieves a balance of political realism and guarded optimism. The future Caesar longs for may be clouded by the settling dust of war, but it remains in sight, a beacon of a bright, new tomorrow.

See it? Yes.

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