Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

It’s a funny thing that three years ago everyone thought the new Planet of the Apes movie, released at the tail end of summer as if to indicate the producers’ lack of assurance about its prospects, was going to suck. The original series, excepting perhaps the original feature, was never very good and is best left to the dustbins of history. Flash-forward to 2014 and it’s now fairly set as a new tent-pole franchise worthy of not only populist blockbuster status but the time and money of discerning film-goers looking for craft and character to go with their explosions. Rise turned out to be better than good and an unexpected year surprise, a rare thing in big budget filmmaking these days. Dawn faces bigger expectations coming into its release, the kind which could sink a would-be summer blockbuster. Thankfully, the film is too confident to fail, boasting a simple, elegant, if familiar, story that’s done up well with pure filmmaking prowess and solid, dependable characters. It’s hard to say which of the two films is superior, but then again we don’t need to. Both are sufficiently different (they really went out on a limb setting this film ten years later than the first and with not one returning human character) and they each work in their own way. This isn’t a game-changing film, but it’s very strong and a surprisingly sturdy second entry to a franchise everyone was surprised to realize they’d missed.

Unlike the first film, this is very much a post-apocalypse story. After the events of Rise, the Simian Flu wiped out almost the entire human population of Earth – those who survive, such as Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), struggle to make ends meet and maintain a semblance of humanity. These particular humans reside in the remains of San Francisco and need hydroelectric power to fuel their dying energy sources, which takes them into the forested territory of the nearby apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Koba (Tony Kebbell), which brings us to the real meat of the story considering the comparative time spent and depth given to the apes over the humans. Caesar is a realist who understands the need for force but generally wants peace with the humans, while Koba, a victim of human torture, knows humanity’s bad side and is ready to prepare for war (Malcom and Dreyfus are their human-counterparts, respectively). The narrative, as it is, is essentially the narrative of the two sides struggling to survive around each other as they remain precariously placed between all-out war and some glimmer of hopeful peace.

The center of the film is undoubtedly the relationship between Caesar and Koba. The human characters, which roughly mirror their ape counterparts too easily, are underdeveloped (this, however, seems intentional and, like in this year’s earlier Godzilla, is as much a strength as a weakness when considering the film’s intentional commentary on the humanity of the apes and the “apeiness” of the humans, for lack of a better term). The particularly rousing first half of the film develops them as conflicted, challenged characters who spend as much time thinking as acting. There’s a slow-building, creeping move toward the inevitable fall-out, befitting the film’s links to Shakespearean tragedy. Koba doesn’t begin as a villain, but a tortured, tormented victim of human violence, while Caesar isn’t a righteous, pacifist do-gooder but a pragmatic being who genuinely weighs options and considers different sides of his situation. He’s clearly willing to commit violence to defend his people if need be.

Caesar is by far the film’s most conflicted and compelling character. After ten years of leading his people, he’s coming to lose what he’s worked for as his humanitarian (or apeitarian, I suppose) revolution turns to abusive, but perhaps necessary violence. To this end, the film’s narrative is largely traditional, somewhat to a fault. The script eventually demands that Caesar be hero and Koba villain, and as per usual, it must commit to the somewhat tired message of equating all violence, regardless of purpose. However, even when the script sacrifices some, although not all, of the character’s initial depth, the visuality of the film, the nuances in the character designs and the performance capture by Andy Serkis and Tony Kebbell, ultimately save the characters more than not – even toward the end, we see Koba’s legitimate anger and Caesar’s conflict as he sees Koba’s side and struggles about how to come to terms with it.

But the script eventually does demand a rousing simplicity to rival other classic populist tragedies like The Empire Strikes Back (befitting this film’s “darker second chapter” status), and even more-so, a live-action Disney film in its traditionalist drama. The film can be read politically, in this regard, with obvious comparisons to the Israel-Palestine conflict and historical racial tension in the world. Ultimately, however, unlike May’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, this film’s tension is less explicitly applicable to specific situations. It’s far broader and more classical, and perhaps less problematic as a result. While X-Men functionally implied that any attempt to revolt among oppressed people is actually based in a desire to rule over the oppressors, and committed obvious and inexcusable character assassination toward the end for no other reason than “of course Magneto, like any violent revolutionary, must be evil”, this film fundamentally legitimizes necessary violence, as the first film did – Caesar is, after all, a pragmatist and not a pacifist – and simply implies that over time, like say the ten years past between this and the previous film, some members of a revolutionary force might lose their way.

At the same time, however, this also gives way to the film’s somewhat less conflicted and complicated end-game, which sacrifices nuance for the classicist grandeur of age-old narrative form. The film plays out like a fable more than anything else, like a story of brothers torn apart as if ripped right out of the Bible and given a fresh coat of paint. It has the feel of a bed-time story, and as with any such story, found in Disney or from the pen of George Lucas, it’s not the character complexity but the visual storytelling that saves the day. Simply put, this is a film of wonderful visual and aural moments that come together to inscribe a mood less than a narrative. There’s a wonderful moment mid-way through the film, perhaps the most sublimely heart-warming in any live-action blockbuster, where the lights to the city are restored to the sounds of The Band’s “The Weight”. Many of the film’s most affecting moments, from a riveting early hunt, to a stunning scene where Malcolm wanders into the ominously foreboding ape home village decked up like Clint Eastwood venturing out into the harsh unknown, to a sumptuously flaring scene where the ape village is lit ablaze and the impossibly red fires duel with the impenetrable darkness are much darker.

There’s also an astoundingly scary and subtly melancholy scene where Koba feigns man’s assumption of him as a loopy, stupid chimp in order to steal guns from two would-be militants. This also plays on the historical slave usage of an Uncle Tom persona to perform subservience publicly while undercutting their masters privately.  Unfortunately, this seriously problematizes the scene politically because Koba ultimately ends up the film’s villain, but the scene as a work of independent construction is rather stunning nonetheless (it also helps that this scene, as with many others that center Koba, filter him through a seemingly more grainy lens that owes a heavy debt to the world of midnight cinema. Such imagery helps transform Koba from a badly realized complex character to an extremely well realized simple character).

Elsewhere, the film’s big action scenes, of which there are a merciful few, are peppered with strong cinematography and inventive direction. The most discussed shot will probably be one where director Reeves, who throughout constructs a wonderfully dark vision of a wooded future, barren yet positively alive, chains his camera to a tank turret as it spins around in the fury of battle yet still manages to do so with an intentionally robotic, measured distance, with stunningly empty music backing it, to capture the very soulless inhumanity of it all. Indeed, the film’s big battle somewhat beautifully opts for intentional distance, meant to convey its tragedy and the ways it could have been avoided rather than any fist-raising or adrenaline rush – this is a rare summer blockbuster that doesn’t necessarily aim to excite with its violence. In fact, quite literally every act of violence in the film is instilled with an air of fatalistic tragedy meant to convey what could have been. The bittersweet finale also climaxes with a nicely subdued one-on-one fight, imbued with ten years of character tension rather than monotone pyrotechnics.

Perhaps the best thing about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that it not only builds on and enhances its predecessor, but it feels significantly different as well – it allows us to feel the passage of time on these characters and their worldviews. Let no one accuse this of being a retread. Even more-so, it manages to actually earn its gloomy self-seriousness, a plague which has inflicted too many summer blockbusters since roughly Batman Begins ten years ago (and this is very much The Dark Knight to Rise’s Batman Begins, which is to say not the all-time classic people want it to be but a damn-good film nonetheless). It doesn’t rewrite any books, and it’s too traditional in some respects (the female characters in the film serve no purpose other than to generally love and heal, while the men go off to brood and war), but when its narrative occasionally hiccups by jumping when it should slowly glide, the filmmaking reels the narrative in and gives it added weight. This is very much a simple story elegantly told. What’s on display here is less than magisterial but nonetheless great. This new Planet of the Apes series, now two films deep, continues to add nuance and impress and provide an unlikely source of modern big-budget filmmaking achievement. With another film two years off, this is definitely a series to remain hopeful for and excited about.

Score: 8.5/10

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