Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Review of the Rise of the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes of the Living Dead

Back in 2011, the Planet of the Apes rose.  Now that same planet is dawning.  I cannot keep track of these titles, they both sound exactly the same, and have far too many articles.  Either way, seems like the Ape Planet is constantly getting started, but not really making much ground.  And if this Planet of the Apes prequel/reboot* franchise is hoping to continue, they're going to have to accept the fact this isn't the beginning anymore.  Is it not time to reach "Act 2 of the Planet of the Apes"?

The main point though is that this reboot or whatever of the Planet of the Apes series has been very successful.  I had a dim view of the first film, considering it to be very uneven thanks to James Franco and a few odd story decisions, but mostly James Franco.  Really though the new-ish franchise was just beginning, it didn't quite know what it was going to be yet.  The tone was off.  The things that worked, such as Andy Serkis as Caesar, were matched by things that didn't work, such as twerpy Tom Felton sacrilegiously stealing Charlton Heston's iconic lines from the 1968 original.  Importantly though, and I admit, I didn't give the movie enough credit for this back in the original review, it did have its own story to tell entirely unique to itself.  It is remake/reboot/whatever that is justifiable in its existence.  And it opened the door for sequels to expand upon that narrative.

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is probably the most perfectly improved sequel that has ever come along.  It recognized the faults of the (kinda) first one, and logically moving forward in the story, fixed them, making for one of the best movies of 2014 so far.  James Franco's character is out, having been wiped out by the 'Simian Flu', a super virus he himself created while trying to create a cure for Alzheimer's in the first movie**.  In his place the hero has been made none other than Caesar himself.  The once lonely hyper-intelligent Ape now is the ruler of an Ape civilization in the redwood forests north of San Francisco.  The conflict this time comes from the first contact between this rising race of Apes and the last remnants of human kind, desperately holding onto what remains of the world they once ruled.  The new story is an intense study on a clash of cultures, nearly perfect in its tone and completing its aims flawlessly.  "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a film so well-made it retroactively changes my opinion on the first one - go watch that, if only to be set up properly for this installment.

I'll begin by addressing a point that I think needs to be made:  Andy Serkis really needs an Academy Award already.  I'm sure Academy conservatives will think that because his performance is partially the result of special effects he isn't putting in the same effort as live actors.  The Academy has never nominated an animated performance, it probably will not consider Andy Serkis come Award Season, but they are wrong.  Serkis has been the king of motion capture characters for over a decade now, beginning with his most famous character, Gollum, where he put in the best performance of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Caesar here is miles away from that devious little green monster begging loudly for "the precious".  He's a veteran leader, wise to the dangers of humanity, and strikingly intense in every scene.  You can see instantly how the charisma of this figure could bring forth a planet where Apes evolved from men.  The Ape King doesn't have much spoken dialog - he can talk but only with apparent difficulty, but his brief expressions tell far more than entire Shakespearean monologues.  This is the best performance I've seen in all of 2014.  If nobody else is going to give Andy Serkis his due, I will.  He is one of the best actors working today, give him a shiny object to celebrate this fact.

Can you even tell that this is all CG wizardry?  That's how good the effects are now.
The special effects, by the way, are a huge improvement.  "Rise" had the distracting detail of every simian being obvious CG - even a few apes in zoos which easily could have been shot using real animals - and the effects were not quite convincing yet.  "Dawn" has no such problems, the Ape CG has advanced to the point that this entire film feels like the Apes are actually there on screen.  You never get the sense of distance between the actors and their computer counterparts, like some previous special effects films have suffered from.  Most of the film takes place in rugged lived-in Ape villages in the forests or "The Last of Us"-style ruined cities***, and in either environment the Apes look like they belong in that universe.  Characters like Jar Jar Binks float around like they are unstuck from time or have one foot in another reality, you can never really believe in them.  Caesar here is an impeccable effect - like all great filmmaking you forget entirely that he is not actually a talking Ape.

The plot of "Dawn" will probably not surprise you with its twists and turns.  A small human community led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), has taken residence within a FEMA supply center in the ruins of San Francisco.  However their fuel is running low and they need a hydroelectric dam to get their power back on to make contact with other survivors.  One member of this society, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) makes first contact with the Ape community, who happen to be living just besides the dam the humans need.  Immediately tensions run high, the Apes fear the humans and their guns, and the humans cannot believe the sight of the animals that "cause" the plague that nearly wiped out our species and worse, that they have begun to talk.  Malcolm and Caesar attempt to work out a peaceful negotiation for the two races, but bellicose elements within both camps make peace impossible.  We aren't going to get a movie where the humans and the Apes will sing Kumbaya, we know this series needs to end with this planet going Ape and the Statue of Liberty getting buried in the sand.

Tragically the horses have sided with the Apes.
The interesting question is not whether war will begin - this is a summer blockbuster, you're going to get your huge expensive battle scene one way or another - but how.  "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" presents several opportunities for a peaceful settlement, the war is clearly unnecessary.  But those opportunities are lost as individual characters make the wrong choices.  A dumber movie ("Avatar" perhaps) would simply make this all into a mindless parable for Imperialism and present one side as the 100% morally-wrong villain.  But "Dawn" has no heroic race, neither one is pure, but neither one is entirely evil.  Worse the clash of species begins to fray the moral foundations of both camps.  Caesar's first law for his people "Ape not kill Ape" becomes a major moral dilemma as his rebellious captain, Koba (Toby Kebbell), goes to any extreme to make the war happen.  Even after the battle has begun, there is no simple solution such as a Last Alliance of Apes and Men to defeat the more obviously villainous characters.

One of the more brilliant scenes in "Dawn" is the huge ridiculous battle scene that every summer blockbuster must have by law of nature.  Director Matt Reeves keeps the tone sombre and miserable.  This is no indulgence in action porn for the sake of the audience's basest instincts.  You don't feel as though this is a grand triumph or even a very fun action scene - it's repulsive naked violence for no greater purpose of any kind.  As Apes are set on fire and the humans huddle around in fear for their lives, it's almost like Reeves is poking you right in the face.  "This is what you wanted, right?  This is what you paid for, right?  Have it.  Feast on the barbarity, suckers."  "Dawn" has a more conventional final climatic fight towards the end, but by then it is already too late for peace.

Oh, just kiss already, you big lugs!
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is not perfect though.  It is ever so slightly too long and I feel the production is missing a small fraction of fun that a two hour blockbuster requires.  Some of the smaller supporting characters could have used more definition as well.  One is constantly drawn to Caesar's enigmatic orangutang best friend, Maurice (Karin Konoval), who seems like he was built for something important in this movie, but never quite gets his moment.  Caesar's son, Blue Eyes has a fantastic character journey that straddles good and evil, but Malcolm's son, in comparison, is window dressing.  The wives of both men are also equally superfluous.  It is a great improvement over James Franco's kinda-ish girlfriend in "Rise" who was truly pointless.  But this is a war story, and that really is the realm for the men, hairy or not.

To conclude, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is easily the best of the Hollywood blockbuster scene that has come out in quite awhile.  It is much bolder than the usual popcorn chugging fair, creating a stirring story of tragedy and the inevitable losses of history.  Even I am shocked by how much I found myself loving this movie, a few watch checks besides the point.  This is probably the best Planet of the Apes movie that has ever been made, and an excellent sign for the future of this franchise.  I want to see more of Caesar and his Ape-kind.

Only please come up with a more distinct title next time.  I really don't want to have to review "Beginning of the Planet of the Apes" in 2016.

* The original Planet of the Apes franchise actually turned out to be a continuous time loop, with the first two movies being the "end" and the next three being the "beginning".  You'll have fans argue whether it's a true time loop or alternate dimensions, but history repeats either way so it doesn't matter.   Starting from the earliest point chronologically it begins with some Future Apes going back in time and arriving in what was then the "modern" Earth of 1971.  Then they escape from an evil circus owner and beget a race of Intelligent Apes who are oppressed by the humans thanks to some on-the-nose slavery parables (this was the gritty racially-charged Seventies after all).  The apes rebel, conquer the humans, and then rule the planet after a ridiculously cheap-looking final battle.  Which worked fine for the Apes and their Planet until spaceman Charlton Heston jumped into the future, landed on Earth, roared at the Statue of Liberty, and accidentally set off an underground nuclear bomb worshiped by a cult of humanoid mutants that obliterated the planet.  (If that sounds silly, this was the very ridiculous Sixties after all.)  Somehow this causes a time dimension which sends those original Future Apes back to 1971, continuing the loop endlessly.

So where do "Dawn" and "Rise" fit in?  Who cares?  Fox can make up anything they want to justify it.

However, what we can all agree on is that the 2001 Marky Mark/Tim Burton movie is total nonsense and can be safely forgotten.  If you're wondering why that movie sucked, it was because this was the intellectually bankrupt early 2000s after all.

** Which makes him, what, the worst scientist ever?  Even mad scientists don't usually create that kind of damage.  But I did notice that none of the humans in this film had Alzheimer's, so maybe Dr. James Franco succeeded in the end.

*** It should really tell you just how iconic an experience like "The Last of Us" was now that every time I see a post-apocalyptic city I immediately think of Joel, Ellie, and subways full of Clickers.  There was a scene in this movie where a character was trying to sneak through a ruined building to avoid Apes and I wanted to pull out my PS3 controlling and start throwing molotov cocktails.  I love that game.


  1. Looks interesting, this and Guardians of the Galaxy look to be the best summer blockbusters this year.
    Sword Of Primus

  2. I'd bet money that the next film is called War of the Planet of the Apes or out right reuses Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

  3. How about Midmorning of the Planet of the Apes for the next one?

    Also: Thanks to Fallout: New Vegas and college Latin classes, I'm still finding myself mentally pronouncing "Caesar" as "Kaisar". The classical pronunciation just sounds more badass, I think.