Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Michael Bay needs to take a page out of Matt Reeves' movie-making playbook. Reeves' new movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is laden with special effects and CGI...and yet instead of ruining the story, it actually enhances it. That might also have to do with the fact that Dawn's story is well-paced and logical, with dialogue and character development that (for the most part) feels organic and cohesive. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not just an action-packed summer blockbuster - it is smart, tense, subtle, and emotional. Definitely one of the best movies I've seen this year (it's up there with X-Men: Days of Future PastCaptain America: The Winter Soldier, and How to Train your Dragon 2).

The movie takes place ten years after the first film in this series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The laboratory-made-cure-for-Alzheimer's-gone-wrong Simian Flu, which fast-tracks the apes' evolution, giving them human-like intellect and speech, has all but wiped out the human race. The apes, led by Caesar (motion-capture portrayed by Andy Serkis) have flourished deep in the woods outside San Francisco, and assume all the humans have died out. But when a group of humans led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) who are immune to the Simian Flu stumble upon the apes while looking for an old dam for power, the tension immediately jumps to an eleven. The humans need Caesar's permission to fix the dam and reroute the power...and the tension jumps to a twelve.

I use the word 'tension' carefully. The screenwriters were wise to have the movie play out the way it did. For quite a while actually, the movie is more or less "peaceful," and the humans and the apes do seem to be working together. However, the whole time watching, you are just waiting for that one thing to go wrong and for either the humans or the apes to snap - because otherwise we wouldn't have a movie.

But even when the movie is building up to that breaking point, it in no way feels tedious or boring, because let me make one thing clear: the humans are NOT the main characters in this story. The main focus is on the apes, and it is riveting and exciting to see the paradise that Caesar has built for his family and his fellow apes. You feel the pain and the struggle that they have been through, and you can see heartbreak in Caesar's eyes as he recalls the events that transpired ten years prior. And while the focus is more on the apes, you do feel for both them and the humans, both trying to survive, to flourish, and to maintain peace, but each realizing that if push comes to shove, they will have to fight. The relationship and dynamic between Malcolm and Caesar is strong, and through them, we see the many parallels between the two species. Malcolm and Caesar clearly have a lot in common, and both have a shared understanding of what is at stake. Again, you can readily and clearly see the weariness, the concern, and the struggle on Caesar's face. Andy Serkis does an AMAZING job - motion-capture has made leaps and bounds since Serkis entered the fray as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings thirteen years ago. His performance is nuanced, and you feel every emotion.

And it isn't only Serkis' performance that made jaws drop in the theatre. All the apes, created using motion-capture and the wizards at WETA Digital, are a wonder to behold. Seriously, there are shots in this film where I thought, "okay, those HAVE to be real apes...." The fur, the facial expression, the depth of the eyes...every ape is so real, and it really helps to pull you into the story (one of the most emotional moments in the film takes place between Caesar and his son, Blue Eyes). Each ape is a real character, and special mention has to go to Caesar's second-in-command, Koba, who is one of the best villains to grace the big screen in a long time. He's not only a good villain because he's a complete badass, but because he is so convicted about his beliefs of mankind. He was tortured for years by Malfoy Tom Felton's character in Rise, and he carries those physical and emotional scars with him everywhere. It'll do something to a man. Or an ape.

This scene.
When the movie finally does hit its breaking point, oh man does it ever hit it. All hell breaks loose, and you immediately feel for both Caesar and Malcolm who had been trying so hard to keep the peace. Part of what makes the inevitable war that much more tense is the fact that the movie throws us its fair share of curveballs - every time I thought the movie was going one way, it would take me for a spin. The action is superbly filmed, well-paced (shaking my head at you, Michael Bay), and the perfect amount of time for you to feel the weight without it making you numb (still shaking my head at you, Mike). The action MEANS something. It's awesome. The musical score also works amazingly with what's happening on screen. Michael Giacchino's (Lost, Up, Star Trek: Into Darkness) score tugs at the heart strings during the quieter moments, and then gets your heart racing when things go apesh*t. Three words: Apes on horses.

If the movie has one weak element, unfortunately it is the human actors; a bit of a trade-off if you want the main characters to be the apes (and there are a lot of apes). Jason Clarke's Malcolm gets the best treatment, and Clarke does a fine job in the role. Other actors like Gary Oldman and Keri Russell don't fair as well, and when things really get going, take a little bit of a backseat. Still, they, alongside the other principal human actors don't ever get relegated to a pure "just there" role, but it would have been nice to see them fleshed out a bit more, especially since the movie does go for a parallel between apekind and mankind, and apekind is fleshed out so incredibly well.

In the end, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an amazing movie. It isn't a black and white, good side / bad side type deal, into which it could have easily devolved. It isn't "good humans" vs "bad apes" or vice versa (which unfortunately, was one of the problems with the first movie). There is good and bad on both sides, and the movie spins this dynamic subtly and realistically. Can't wait for the next one (director Matt Reeves is returning).

4.5 apes out of 5

P.S. I was looking up info on the movie's soundtrack, since I loved it so much. Evidently, Michael Giacchino is a fan of puns. Take a look at some of his tracks' titles:

"Past Their Primates"
"Close Encounters of the Furred Kind"
"Monkey See, Monkey Coup"
"Gorilla Warfare"
"The Apes of Wrath"
"Along Simian Lines"
"Caesar No Evil, Hear No Evil"

The guy's a genius.


  1. Man, how many movies do you watch?? Holy...

    1. Haha, so this is obviously someone I know. Ask me how many movies I haven't watched. That number will be smaller. *mind blown*

      Bah. There are actually quite a few big gaps in my watched-movies repertoire.

  2. Good review Jeremy. It builds off it's predecessor exactly the way that every sequel should and went above and beyond.