Sunday, September 21, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

2014, Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) -- in theatre

It was a pretty amazing summer for blockbuster movies.  Even if the box office didn't reflect it as being the best ever, I'm almost certain this summer's crop provided us with the best batch of movies week after week.  It started early in February with The Lego Movie and Captain America: The Winter Soldier in March, and went full steam ahead with X-Men Days of Future Past, Godzilla and onwards.  There were naturally a couple duds (Amazing Spider-Man 2, Transformers 4, and Ninja Turtles, all of which I avoided) there always are, but the caliber of the summers biggest films were so above par, not just in providing cool effects, but really strong directorial vision, thoroughly engaging and satisfying stories, and a measure of intelligence we're just not used to seeing in our popcorn entertainment.  While I'm still tardy on reviewing a few of these (Guardians of the Galaxy, Snowpiercer, How To Train Your Dragon 2), I had watched all the big movies that were worth watching this past one: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

There's often a divide among cinephiles and nerds over what constitutes a "good" movie, but also a bridge of nerd cinephiles sitting right in the middle of that venn diagram who appreciate a masterful drama or well-crafted documentary and the biggest of explosions and best special effects money can buy in equal measure.  Most of these people do reviews on the internet (*AHEM*).  Of these hybrid "cinerdphiles", it seemed like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was quite often coming up as highlight of the summer.  It's not like I didn't want to see it.  I love the original Planet of the Apes series, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an emotionally devastating and utterly surprising reboot of the series.  David and I had planned to see it together, but with the crazy summer schedule it just never worked out...but I knew I needed to see it in theatre before it went for good.

Where Rise was a smaller story about family with a strong anti-animal testing message, Dawn goes much bigger into examining what brings societies to war.  The setting of the film is a decade after Rise, the anti-Alzheimer's drug that Jame Franco's character invented in the first film that caused Caesar to rapidly evolve in intelligence also mutated into a virus that turned lethal to humans.  Society as we know it quickly collapsed while the escaped apes who were experimented on have built an entirely new and quickly expanding ape society in the forests outside San Francisco.  Humanity has survived, but in very small numbers.  When we meet the apes they haven't seen a human in years, up until Caesar's son, Blue Eyes, and a friend encounter one in the woods, one who panics and shoot's Blue Eye's friend.  This sets of a very tense chain of events as the increasingly desperate surviving humans in San Francisco, running low on diesel-generated power, get set to reclaim the forest to get to the dam, led by nervous Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).

Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the sort of engineering leader of the humans, looks to establish a truce with the Apes, and ventures out to connect with Caesar in hopes of reaching an understanding.  Caesar is reluctant to engage with the humans, concerned the influence they will have on his new society, but agrees to help them restore their power if it means peace.   His right hand ape, Koba, not only doesn't trust the humans but hates them with a fervor, and continually advises Caesar against his diplomacy, but when it falls on deaf ears, he turns Blue Eyes against him.

The humans, by and large, are fearful of the apes, blaming them for the deadly virus, not the laboratory scientists that created it.  The fact that some of them can speak and ride horses and brandish weapons amplifies their terror.  The desire to destroy what they both fear and do not understand is an all too common trait, one which both Caesar and Koba know all too well. But what Caesar had experienced, and Koba never did, was compassion, love and guidance from a human hand, and he nostalgically believes there is still value to them.  Koba can't see past his hate and begins scheming to convince to his leader and his apes that they must attack and destroy them.  When his scheming doesn't work directly, he becomes downright insidious in his actions.

It's a potent analogy to real life, that there are good people trying to make the world and the lives of people within it the best they can be for everyone, which includes compromise and tolerance, and there are others out for their own agenda fueled by hate, fear, an greed.  Dreyfu is convinced that their means of survival is taking other's land by force, while it's Koba's blind hatred of another race that he's willing to sacrifice the lives of his own to exterminate theirs.  It operates on a much smaller, more simplified scale, dealing solely with terrain in and around San Francisco populated with only a few hundred people and apes, but in a small dramatic package it speaks to what drives cultures to war.

Of all of the summer films, Caesar may be the best realized and best performed character of the bunch (and it's a hybrid performance between the animators and Andy Serkis' motion capture acting).  Caesar is trying to establish a society that is built around a hybrid of apes of advanced intelligence and of normal ape intelligence.  He has to lead using his superior mind, but also through his brute primal nature in equal measure.  He's a family man, teaching his son about the world both as he once knew it and how it is now, with another son just born and a wife who is ill (women get the terrible short shrift in this film, it doesn't pass the Bechdel test in the least).  He is a warrior, a hunter, a diplomat, and whatever he needs to be to ensure his society doesn't collapse or get destroyed.  The face of Caesar, being digitally rendered, is afforded a level of animation that few human performers could achieve.  But beneath it all are some very real emotions, the eyes of Serkis conveying the weight it all has upon him.  The look of betrayal when Koba turns on him, or the expression of  his failure when his son turns to Koba after rejecting him are palpable.

But it's not just Caesar, all the main apes, Koba, Blue Eyes, and Maurice the Orangutan are so wonderfully rendered, they are the richest characters on screen.  The human characters pale before them, but arguably it's because they have the tougher job of acting against not a actual ape.  Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee share a nice bonding moment -- as Malcolm's girlfriend and son, respectively, she lost a lot in the collapse, and he's never known anything but suffering -- but it's brief, and the human struggle is of lesser interest overall.  Beyond just wanting to see the human race survive, and, well, be decent, the film gives you little incentive to invest in their plight, or care all that much about the characters.  But it's kind of like watching Jurassic Park from the point of view of the dinosaurs, the humans just aren't as important.

The film has its choppy moments, particularly the opening hunting scene in the beginning where there is way too much cgi fauna on screen.  The uncanny valley maxes out and it doesn't look great.  The scene with the bear was good, particularly Koba's assist, but the bear just didn't quite look right.  Perhaps on the small screen.  But beyond that the cgi apes seemed quite refined, the lead apes certainly having the most amount of effort invested in bringing them to life.  The soundtrack from Michael Giacchino is dangerously dull, television drama quality, threatening to take the viewer out of the film with every slow piano.  It's like Giacchino used up all his tricks on Lost, and I'm so familiar with his work from there, it doesn't easily get repurposed elsewhere.

Of all the summer movies, this is the heaviest, most intense.  I welled up with tears any number of times throughout it, director Reeves balancing the spectacle with the emotional drama, using his effects budget not to dazzle so much as present the weight of the characters and their actions.  It's an excellent continuation of the series, and it's tremendous success means more will definitely be on the way (although the reports from producers seem to indicate a remake of the original film is the ultimate destination point, which seems ill-advised, as it does hold up pretty damn well).