Friday, 15 August 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) Movie Review

This week, I painted my face with some cool war paint, learned sign language (not really) and swung my way down to the local cinema to check out Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), which shall henceforth be known simply as "Dawn" since I don't want to have to keep typing it out throughout this review. Dawn stars Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke and Keri Russell. It's directed by Matt Reeves.

Dawn picks up nearly 10 years after the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). The opening montage shows the spread of the disease that came to be known as the Simian Flu and it's effect on humankind. Namely, nearly wiping it out. The film then moves us to the ape city that's slowly being created and the human city that's slowly falling apart. The film's main focus is the struggle between these two factions, both with each other and within their own ranks.

Dawn makes some bold moves fairly early in the film. After the recap during the opening credits, our first scene is actually within the ape city. Even though Caesar (Andy Serkis) was clearly speaking by the end of Rise, the vast majority of the communication seen from ape to ape is via sign language. What we end up with is a long and beautifully shot but near silent set of scenes clearly establishing the apes as highly emotional and very family oriented characters. Typically in a movie of this fashion, a lot of time is spent on the human characters, ensuring that the audience has someone they can relate to. Instead, Dawn takes the time to make the apes very much human in our eyes, giving us touching moments and examples of loyalty, bravery, cunning and, ultimately, betrayal. As I said, it's a bold move on the film makers part and it pays off brilliantly.

In fact, it may pay off a bit too brilliantly. The apes are so beautifully rendered and amazingly characterized that the actual humans in the film end up playing second banana (I'm so very sorry). All of the truly poignant moments in the movie come from the apes. The range of emotion the CGI apes are able to convey is nothing short of astounding. Even the sign language allows the viewer to read the scene in their head and add their own heightened level of emotion to the mix. The humans in the film don't really stack up to this. Well, most of the humans anyway.

Gary Oldman is the lone exception here. Or, at least, he would be if he'd been given more than 15 minutes of screen time. Just as Bryan Cranston was criminally underused in Godzilla (2014), so too does Oldman get short shrifted. A couple of key scenes and a moving speech and he's gone for most of the film. The few scenes he does get to play in he steals, of course. We just don't get to see nearly enough of him.

That's not my biggest gripe with Dawn, though. No, my biggest gripe is the nature of the film itself. This is a prequel; a second film that's leading to the eventual remake of the 1968 film The Planet of the Apes. The problem? Well, it's the problem with all prequels, really. We already know where it's all going to go. 

I find it incredibly difficult to take the human struggle for survival and it's need to hang on to civilization seriously when I know it's ultimately going to fail. I also find it hard to get involved in any of the "bonding" moments between human and ape when I know those bonds clearly do not last. Why do I care if Caesar and some dude become best buds when I know that apes will rule the planet (hence the title) and keep humans as pets? What's in it for me to see the humans trying desperately to get a hydro dam working to maintain power in their city if I know that the humans end up as speechless savages living in the jungle? Some say it's the journey and not the destination, but that's only when you haven't already actually experienced the destination. Maybe it's just me.

This movie couldn't have been made 10 years ago. It's a truly ambitious effort that blurs the lines between actual actors on-screen and CGI, motion-capture characters rendered digitally instead. It's a triumph of technology, much like Gravity (2013) was before it. It's also a character study with the cool part being that those characters are apes and not people. Let's hope it's a sign of more good things to come, even though I'll continue to grind my teeth at the nature of prequels and all the baggage that comes with them.

4 out of 5 stars.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Aug 15 2014
Rating: 4

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