Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (***1/2)
Directed by Matt Reeves
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not like most of the sequels coming out this summer (or the last five summers, really). The only characters that have stuck around from the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes are all CGI'd apes. They've switched directors too, from newcomer Rupert Wyatt to Cloverfield director Matt Reeves. Dawn feels like a whole new story, more of a continuation of a character than a continuation of plot. Rise was a pleasant surprise three years ago, the beginning of the smarter Hollywood that has come to define this decade: using creative ideas and good screenwriting to boost known cinematic brands out of mediocrity and into actual cinema. Dawn is an excellent example of that ideal. Reeves directs with moments of flash but with a constant sense of slick urgency. Watching this latest film, I was struck by the thought that there isn't another franchise in Hollywood right now that is more committed to good filmmaking and acting than the Planet of the Apes reboot. No doubt, the film is very serious about itself and the story it's telling, but it also backs that up with solid screenwriting. It's a marvel to see a commercial film made with this much to say.
There's a good chance that we will look back in ten or twenty years and realize how little we truly appreciated how good of an actor Andy Serkis is. Of course, his greatest performances are all hidden behind CGI. Three Lord of the Rings films showcased his Gollum, which is easily the best, most complex and pitiful character of that trilogy. Serkis' performance in those films elevated them above rollicking journeydom, and introduced an element of weirdness and tension. The actor was unafraid of the desperation in Gollum and what that meant for Frodo and company. As Caeser in the new Planet of the Apes films, we're seeing Serkis perform in a totally different light. He's playing a very intelligent chimpanzee, a respected leader amongst his village and a startlingly intimidating figure. Serkis imbues the character with so much humanity that he plausibly becomes the film's protagonist, and yet is still savvy enough to underline the animalistic details. We're never meant to mistake him for human, and that's not what Serkis was going for anyway. The effects are disturbingly good and they reach a level where it's hard to tell what's from the computer and what isn't. The point being that we rarely ever see Serkis when he's at his best, but it should be said that this is some of the best acting you're going to see all year.
Years after the medical experiments of Rise, the human race was exposed to a virus that nearly wipes them out. Living peacefully in a village, Caeser and the apes have not seen a human for over two years. That changes when they're encroached by a group of them, one of which shoots an ape in scared self-defense. Caeser and his army quickly approach the offending group, which includes Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Elli (Keri Russell), and the uppity Carver (Kirk Acevedo) - the one who fired the gun. Caeser, the only member of his colony who has good experiences with humans, allows the group to leave with their lives, but not before bellowing with all the authority that he could muster to never come back. Malcolm and the group return to a decimated San Francisco, where a few hundred surviving humans have staved off extinction in a state of high-end poverty. These survivalists are lead by the pragmatic Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who makes speeches often atop scaffolding with a bullhorn. He's led them this far, but their fuel and source of power is running low. The only hope for the humans is in an abandoned dam that could possibly provide electricity if they can get it running again. Unfortunately, this dam is located within the very area that Caeser commanded them to stay away from.
Dreyfus is forceful, understanding that the desperation of the people can turn ugly if their resources shrink even more. He wants to take the dam by force, and they have the leftover military tools to do so. But Malcolm preaches peace. When he discovers that Caeser can speak, that they may be more than just simple apes, he pleads that a deal can be reached without violence. Malcolm, along with Alexander and Elli, return to village to speak with Caeser about a peaceful agreement. Caeser's overall ambivalence toward humans is met with fierce antagonism from a lot of his tribe. This is symbolized in the character of Koba (Toby Kebbell), who's visible scars reveal an ape who's had a lot less flattering experiences with humans and can only view them through the pain they made him suffer. Koba begs for Caeser to attack these newly-discovered humans while they're not expecting it. Helping them will only make them stronger, and it's a matter of time before their sinister intentions arise. But Caeser instead agrees to help Malcolm, recognizing the honesty of the man. The agreement does not go well within the village. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver with a swiftly-bound plot that unfolds with the kind of convenience that's hard to notice. They're the good kind of script contrivances.
The screenwriters are not afraid of the illusions being made to culture warfare and the seductive danger of militarization. The original Planet of the Apes from the sixties was also a film which had a thinly veiled allegory for cultural injustices which were prevalent at the time. The fact that 46 years later, we still find the need for social commentary may show that we may not have progressed as far as we like to think we have. Its comments are obvious but not obnoxious, the screenwriters and their director have a very acute understanding of what's going on in the world, they way fear has bought power for a select few and how violence is a very convenient short cut to compassion. They see how their characters fit the pieces of this puzzle, and allow the movie to stand alone without it. The aggression that the humans have toward apes and vice versa is easy to comprehend: it's a thin line between who's the master and who's in a cage. The way Reeves and the writers handle this tension - both the one between the apes and the humans, as well as the one between the film and the audience - is astonishing in its gaul and scope. This is not a film that's unafraid to start a conversation, even if that conversation is simply, "Is that a monkey riding on a horse holding an automatic rifle!?" The absurdity of some of the images plays into what Reeves is doing. To imagine a world where a chimp can drive a tank is to also imagine one where the humans do their bidding.
Humans are represented here as hostile, without much care for any species that isn't their own. Malcolm and Elli seem to be the only humans in the film capable of compassion, although Alexander shows that he's capable of some empathy with the apes as well. Jason Clarke seemed poised to be a star after a breakout performance in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, but this feels like the first time that I've seen him since. His performance here is strong, he makes it easy to believe that he's the most moral man in a colony filled with desperate people. Malcolm is a pseudo protagonist, giving the audience a human face to empathize with, while Serkis carries the actual load as the film's true hero. But Clarke knows his purpose and executes it gracefully. But Serkis, as Caeser, is the true soul of the film. The performance confirms that he is essentially the Daniel Day-Lewis of motion-capture performance, and there's something to be said that he's a known commodity in a business where what you look like is everything. The effects here are incredible; it's hard to imagine another film topping it. The austere seriousness of Caeser, the fierce deformities of Koba, and even characters like Maurice (Karin Konoval), a loyal orangutan with a pancake face filled with kindness - they all have distinct features that speak to character, and I can't think of a better use of CGI than that.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is at the top with Edge of Tomorrow as the best blockbuster of the summer. Edge of Tomorrow was a much sunnier film, led mostly by the starpower of Tom Cruise. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a bit more substance to it, it's voice is not muted by its plot, its images speak louder than the dialogue. Faces are important in all movies, but Dawn uses them strategically here. You can draw a lot of allegories to the apes in this film; they can be made into any race that's been tragically oppressed at some point in history. That their story can fit so perfectly into any of these periods says something quite daunting about the violent history of the human race - a history that is continuing its narrative of displacement and militarization. But this is, overall, a Hollywood film. It's not intended to rub feathers and perhaps I'm reading a bit too much into it. Matt Reeves crafts a startling piece of filmmaking, either way. It's startling cinematography (Michael Seresin) and editing (William Hoy, Stan Salfas) accumulating along with the performances to create the most noble film funded by Hollywood dollars this Summer. Summer movies have been trying a little harder these last few years, but most think that being 'just okay' is enough to cross the bar. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes sets itself at a higher standard.