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Although “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is technically a sequel to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the term doesn’t do it justice. We associate sequels with films that sound and look like louder, garish photocopies of their predecessors…say, the Transformers films. And yet, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” does everything a sequel is supposed to do, and better: it builds on already created characters, taking them and their original story to the next, logical level. And in that regards, it can definitely be argued that it stands next to “The Godfather Part II,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and even “Spider-Man 2” as one of the best sequels ever made. However, I believe “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” transcends that term: it is, really, chapter two of a saga that reinvents and reinterprets the original five films produced between 1968 and 1973 based on Pierre Boule’s original novel.

While the original “Planet of the Apes” introduced a fully developed simian society where humans were treated as third class citizens, this current iteration intends to show us how that world came to be. The movie starts ten years after a group of genetically altered apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) escaped from an animal shelter where they were mistreated, and from the lab where they were being experimented upon. The man-made virus that gave them their superior intelligence has decimated most of the Earth’s human population. The apes, now numbering in the thousands, have created a society of their own in the forests outside of San Francisco. Some, like Caesar, can fully speak and even write; most communicate through sign language. Almost every ape species is represented; “ape don’t kill ape” is their maximum law.

Caesar rules over this diverse community with salomonic wisdom. He puts itto good use when a human, in fear, shoots one of his ape citizens after running into them in the forest. This trigger-happy human is part of an expedition led by former architect Malcolm (Jason Clarke), girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell) and son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to locate a dam that may provide a new source of energy to San Francisco’s remaining human population. After Caesar and his army deliver a warning to the humans to stay away, Malcolm convinces his leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), to let him talk to Caesar. Dreyfus gives him three days to negotiate and turn the dam on; otherwise, they’ll take the dam by force.
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Caesar and Malcolm reach an understanding, but there is mistrust in both camps, more dangerously from Caesar’s rival Koba (Toby Kebbell), the scarred, tortured lab ape whose hatred and resentment of humans knows no bounds. Koba soon discovers that the humans are arming themselves but decides to keep that information private for one reason: to get rid of Caesar and provoke the inevitable violent confrontation between apes and humans.

This is not the good apes versus bad humans battle of the original “Planet of the Apes” saga. The script by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver is far more nuanced, opting to explore the far grayer shades of any tribal or territorial conflict rather than the black and white terms of today’s political discourse. Yes, the sight of apes on horseback storming the compound is viscerally exciting…but also sad and tragic as you realize that, as in real life, such an attack was unnecessary and unavoidable. The film smartly shows how it takes just one resentful fanatic to strike the match that will blow the entire powder keg up (can you say, the Middle East?). And even though it could be argued that Dreyfus is Koba’s human counterpart, you almost feel sorry for the former for being dragged into a conflict not of his making.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is, like Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer,” that rare cinematic species, one that I fear is in danger of extinction: a genre movie that deftly balances action with ideas, where characters are given room to breathe and grow. The script deserves credit for this accomplishment but so does director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield,” “Let Me In”) who, from the get-go, immerses us in this dreary world. How he begins and ends the film is, alone, a stroke of genius: after the opening credits, a tight close-up of Caesar’s eyes; at the end, a slow zoom into those very same eyes. These two shots mark Caesar’s journey from beloved leader of his tribe to reluctant general of an unwanted war.

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Serkis is the film’s heart and soul. Capture motion technology has advanced in leaps and bound that it finally has caught up to Serkis’ emotional and dramatic range. Yes, he was good in “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy” and in “King Kong” and in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” But here, he surpasses those accomplishments. He subtly imbues each facial and physical gesture with so much power and heft that you forget you are watching a digital creation. You can feel the burden on his shoulders. You believe in this Caesar as you believe in all the other simian characters. Equal praise goes to Kebbell who, as Koba, creates a unique, ruthless, yet tragic character.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a movie about loss: what we lose personally and as a society when faced with an extreme situation. There are no good guys or bad guys here, just flawed characters…Caesar included. It’s a movie with a conscience, and as such it stands proud, a beacon for other filmmakers to follow, way above the rest of all the commercial fare the studios have released so far this year.

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