Film Review: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
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DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Toby Kebbell, Karin Konoval
Produced by Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver Original novel by Pierre Boulle
Director of Photography, Michael Seresin
Senior Visual Affects Supervisor, Joe Letteri
Production Designer, James Chinlund
Musical Score by Michael Giacchino
Visual Effects, Weta Digital
Last year, 2013, marked the 50th anniversary of the original 1963 release of the French science fiction novel “La Planète des singes,” or “Planet of the Apes,” by Pierre Boulle. During the ensuing 51 years, Boulle’s inventive, unique novel about a planet run by apes, with humans as subservient creatures completely ruled by the apes, has prompted the steady, scientifically-proven evolution of eight films, two television shows, comic books, toys, and countless bits for comedy impressionists who have to include their impressions of Charlton Heston reciting numerous famous lines from the original 1968 Franklin Schaffner film, “Planet of the Apes,” in which Heston starred as the doomed astronaut who lands on the ape-planet. Boulle, who died in 1994 at 81, was said to have been surprised by the success of the film series and television shows and comic books, but, lawdy, would he be even more surprised, most likely, that now, half a century after the initial release of his book, we’d still be going out and watching “Planet of the Apes” movies that are still analyzing, probing, discussing, evaluating, imagining, re-imagining and intellectually dissecting the numerous themes, messages and ideas that he first presented in his book way back in 1963.
The evolution continues here and now, 51 years later, in the summer of 2014, with the scheduled July 11, 2014, release of the latest film in the resilient series, director Matt Reeves’ surprisingly entertaining, suspenseful, fast-moving (but not too fast-moving), tightly-edited, well-paced and well-timed, excellently-acted, smartly-written, visually stunning and even intellectually stimulating “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” This particular “Dawn” of a new movie series is actually an above-average science fiction film that not only restores this particular series back to respectability and a higher level of quality and intelligence, but gives a resounding, positive bit of upbeat news to Hollywood that, yes indeed, there are some filmmakers besides Christopher Nolan and the Bond producers who can actually provide a quality, smart sequel/prequel/remake/reboot/re-imagining. This is good news indeed, considering the very real fact that most sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots and re-imaginings are just simply dumb, awful, and waste-of-time and waste-of-money flops, blunders and dumbed-down rip-offs.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is that rare film in which a combined sequel/reboot/re-imagining—which is what “Dawn” is–cuts through the dumbness, cuts through the mediocrity, and cuts through the Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer/comic book/super hero/video game fog of idiocy and actually registers as a quality stand-alone film that will make you forget, for a while, that it’s a sequel, reboot and re-imagining. And “Dawn” is also that rare sequel in a rebooted series that is actually better than its predecessor, in this case the somewhat mediocre, not-too-inspired and slow-moving reboot/re-imagining, Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” from 2011. That film, which had good intentions and, of course, superb state-of-the-art visual, special and technical affects, nevertheless suffered from a general lack of tension, suspense, conflict, deeper themes and thoughts, and a general, overall lack of a spirit of new inventiveness that could lift the film above the mundane and ordinary. The promise and suggestions of a new take on the classic tale was lurking somewhere beneath the computer and digital effects and the basic storyline, but, again, the film dragged somewhat and sputtered here and there, and the movie never reached that higher level of originality and inventiveness to really make the product something new and exciting. Others disagreed with that view, though—“Rise” was a surprise, sleeper success worldwide. Boulle’s vision indeed had a new take on life, and a new series was born—or evolved.
Thus, to our credit, we now have a superior sequel in a rebooted, re-imagined series that has that needed level of originality, inventiveness, quality, intelligence—and superior filmmaking, on all levels, from the overall direction, production design, camera work and cinematography, editing, musical score, writing and acting. There are few misses in “Dawn,” and the filmmakers seemed to have been truly inspired and invigorated with this production, perhaps super-charged from the worldwide positive reaction and acceptance of “Rise,” which was released ten years after Tim Burton’s monumental flop and failure, his wholly misguided and generally uninspired “Planet of the Apes” from 2001.
“Dawn”—which can be seen as a stand-alone film even if you have not seen “Rise,” even if you have not seen the previous six “Apes” films before that, and even if you have not read the original book—picks up the action ten years after the conclusion of “Rise,” but an excellent, clearly-explained story-establishing prologue explains to the viewer everything that needs to be known about where the story now stands. “Dawn” starts ten years after a deadly virus—a virus created by humans, it should be noted—has wiped out much of the human population on Earth and has driven human survivors into heavily-guarded, desolate, desperate, and often utility-powerless enclaves much like those you’ve seen in other post-apocalyptic worlds (but that’s okay here, as the human and ape environments are so beautifully rendered, they take on their own original atmospheres, auras and moods). One hardy, tough and disparate band of human survivors has toughed out a ramshackle, increasingly failing existence in a barricaded section of San Francisco—with utility power running low, and increasing concerns about long-term and even short-term survival chances. They need electrical, water and utility power—and their only chance is to venture into the nearby Muir Woods, work on a long-dormant dam, get the dam working again—and restore badly-needed power to their city.
One day a varied group of humans ventures near the dam, deep in the beautiful, lush, green and towering woods—only to encounter the surviving apes from “Rise,” who had escaped their prior human captors, headed to the woods and established their own rising civilization during the past ten years. The apes are evolving–complete with increased ape intelligence, increased ape abilities to communicate via sign language and verbally, and increased abilities by apes to think like humans, act like humans, feel and emote and interact and socialize and create societies like humans. The apes can build, create, reason, discuss, analyze and create their own functioning system of hierarchy, government, rule-making, along with their own in inherent type of legal system.
For ten years at least, apes and humans had survived together but not together, peaceful in their own separate and, for a time, equal civilizations. But of course, the renewed interaction in the woods between apes and humans stirs up all levels of discourse, anxiety, angst, division, rebellion, worries, alarm bells—and political, cultural, sociological, anthropological and intellectual battles. And it is these varied political and social divisions and battles that give the film its more intelligent heft and weight—humans battle humans about what to do about the apes; apes battle apes about what to do about the humans; and humans battle apes about what to do with each other. The ten-year peace quickly crumbles after that initial encounter in the woods, and all hell soon breaks loose, as rebel apes want to fight and destroy the humans; wayward, slightly-psycho humans want to fight and destroy the apes—led by a restrained, understated but still powerful Gary Oldman, no less; and more level-headed, down-to-earth, relatable and likeable humans and apes simply want peace and to co-exist peacefully, on the same levels of understanding.
Rather than just present an extended, boring series of fights and gunfire and explosions—there is action, fortunately, and it is well-staged action—the filmmakers smartly never allow the action to overwhelm the more intelligent explorations of the themes of war and peace, societal differences, and, most notably, race and class differences. As they were in the similarly smart original series of films from 1968 to 1973, the psychological differences between humans and apes are clearly stand-ins for serious, deep thoughts about race, class, economic and geographical differences among people, and the accompanying levels of dangerous ignorance, misunderstanding, racism and blind-hate that blinds many people, leading to unnecessary and unwanted hatred, war and violence. These themes are prominent and up-front throughout “Dawn,” to the film’s great credit, and while the film barrels along at a crisp, briskly-edited pace, it never storms ahead so fast that you cannot stop and think about the underlying meanings, messages and themes of the divisions presented in the story and up on the screen.
Why do some people harbor such hatred, violence, division, racism and warmongering tendencies? Why can’t they listen to the peacemakers, the intellectuals, the diplomats, the sages—who all promote conversations, discussions, discourse, meetings and diplomacy before war and violence? These are questions, messages and themes of the ages—among the major messages and themes and areas of thought throughout the history of mankind, no less—but they are never questions that tire of the need for serious discussion. Amid the dazzling natural and computer-made indoor and outdoor sets, visual effects, tension and suspense and spectacle and action—there is always throughout “Dawn” the constant heavy, serious presence of these age-old, timeless questions of life and death. You can see it in the eyes of the lead characters, you can hear it in the discussions among the varied factions that develop, and you can feel, really feel, the weight of these questions in the superb characterizations of the lead characters by the lead actor. All the lead characters know that the very balance of their lives on the planet are indeed hanging in the balance, quite possibly about to drop off the balance into all-out war. Such matters weigh heavily on the lead characters throughout the film, and this, again, gives the film a more intelligent weight that lifts it above the fold.
The increasingly intelligent—and intellectual—apes are led by Caesar—no subtle symbolism, there, but the obviousness of the ape-leader’s name is intended, as it was in the original film series. Superbly portrayed by Andy Serkis—the Lon Chaney/Boris Karloff of our time and an excellent actor to boot—Caesar is dealing with a loving, beautiful wife who is sick and possibly dying; a possibly rebellious teenage son who doesn’t quite view things in the same vein as his father; a newborn son; Caesar’s own personal respect for the humans that is contrasted by a subtle mistrust for some of their past abuses of apes; his wishes simply for peace—and a dangerously growing insurgency among restless apes who want to go against Caesar’s wishes for peace and just simply fight the humans in a war. That rising, troubling rebel and renegade contingency is led by the angry, powerful and continually menacing Koba, also superbly portrayed, by Toby Kebbell.
Koba, a longtime top official, adviser and comrade of Caesar who was abused and experimented on by the humans, slowly starts to drift away from his alliance with Caesar, and he starts to drift toward leading a dangerous rebel faction that leans toward disobeying Caesar, disregarding Caesar’s wishes for peace—and marching into that fog of war from the fog of peace that envelopes the apes’ society in the Muir Woods.
Meanwhile, while Caesar deals with the apes’ insurgency, the humans are mirroring the apes in very similar fashions. With a peaceful leader, Malcolm (wonderfully understatedly played by a likeable, down-to-earth, in-control Jason Clarke) battling Oldman’s hateful, angry and, as noted, slightly psycho and ignorant Dreyfus, the same inner conflicts arise within the human contingent. Oldman’s faction wants to fight the apes, and Malcolm’s small, grubby but faithful faction (which includes another understated performer, the equally down-to-earth and likeable Keri Russell as Ellie, a nurse and growing romantic interest of Malcolm) wants simply to exist peacefully among the apes and avoid any bloodshed, war and violence.
Everything goes to pieces among all the disparate factions—apes and humans—and the misunderstandings, conflicts and battles escalate. The tension and suspense continues to build—and that tension and suspense add more layers to the already-tense and smart script and story.
Director Reeves seems to have instructed everyone—to the credit of the film—to keep things understated, cooly and calmly powerful, and in control. Even Oldman’s more bombastic tendencies are kept in check—much as he kept them in check in Nolan’s “Batman” films. Clarke and Russell and Serkis, as the good guys who you really do want to win—are likeable, relatable, normal, level-headed and smart throughout, building a base for characters that you not only like and root for, but actually care about on a deeper level. The same applies to actor Karin Konoval’s excellent portrayal of the wise Maurice, Caesar’s trusted, sage-like brain trust and top diplomatic adviser. Here, again, is yet another sympathetic character that audiences can like, root for and care about.
Helping matters throughout, and giving Serkis, Clarke, Russell, Oldman, Kebbell and Konoval plenty to work with is that smart, deep and message-and-theme-probing screenplay by gifted writer Mark Bomback, who also deserves endless credit and kudos for the equally-smart and entertaining “Live Free and Die Hard”—one of the other, few examples of a surprisingly top-notch, above-average sequel that maintains high-quality levels of intelligence and entertainment throughout the course of the film. Bomback is aided on the script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who also co-produce and who also penned “Rise.”
Reeves and his production designer, director of photography and visual effects supervisor will be credited and cheered—deservedly–for the amazing, dazzling special, computer, digital and visual effects that do indeed bolster the film. Peter Jackson’s miracle factory, Weta Digital, oversees the literally hundreds of special and visual effects workers whose credits do indeed number in the hundreds. They all deserve kudos for transforming actual natural sets—in Vancouver, San Francisco and New Orleans—into futuristic wonderlands that harbor post-apocalyptic humans and increasingly socializing apes—and for creating hundreds of lifelike apes that emote in every conceivable way to the point that they will touch viewers’ hearts. To create atmospheric emotion from naturally-beautiful naturalistic sets and to create human—and ape—emotions from digitally-created beings to the point where actions as simple as a look, a stare, a grimace, a tear, a laugh come through on deeply-emotional levels, is a major achievement in “Dawn.” (However, one major drawback is the cheap 3D gimmick—the 3D is lame, there is no reason for it, and you do not have to see this film in 3D. In fact, viewers would be better off seeing this film in 2D. The idiotic, useless 3D gimmick—basically a rip-off—is a corny trend whose time never was, and never should have been.)
Smartly, there are homages here and there—as there should be—throughout “Dawn” to not only the original messages and themes in Boulle’s original book, but to the ideas and ideals that were explored in the original film series: “Planet of the Apes” (1968); “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970); “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (1971); “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972); and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973). One major, much-appreciated homage to the original series is composer Michael Giacchino’s powerful, booming score for “Dawn.” Using his own powerful, full-orchestral arrangements, Giacchino throws in some notes, bars and thematic aspects that slyly recall the ‘70s-style, futuristic musical scores of the original series.
Eventually, this “Dawn” leads to a powerful, moving conclusion that will have viewers thinking about and exploring the ideas of human dominance, humans’ fragile relations with other species, the interesting ideas about evolving species that challenge humans’ dominance, the very ideal of that dominance, and the very fragile state of being for any species—human beings included—on Earth. “Dawn” will also have viewers thinking about the very real, very scary possibility that perhaps one day, humans may not be the dominate species on this planet, and perhaps the time will arrive for another species to take over Earth. A species such as, perhaps…apes.
For that evolution to continue, there must surely be another film in the series. No problem—20th Century Fox, the long-time keeper of the “Apes” film property, has green-lit the production of a third film in this new series—to be directed by Reeves and written by Bomback. Let’s hope that for that next film, the filmmakers wisely remember all the notable factors that made “Dawn” work so well.