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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
I don’t think 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes could possibly have been less anticipated. Ten years previous, Tim Burton’s adaptation of the 1968 Charlton Heston-starring classic sci-fi film left viewers befuddled and angry. Thus, a prequel film starring James Franco (who is not necessarily known for his prowess in action/sci-fi films) from an unknown director dumped into the dregs of August didn’t exactly inspire confidence from studio Fox. The film, however, was surprisingly well reviewed and went on to big box office success and fan acclaim. I doubt many thought it would be possible to resurrect this decades-old franchise, but Fox managed to pull it off.
A follow-up film was immediately put into production, with Andy Serkis reprising his role as Caesar, the charismatic super-intelligent chimpanzee and leader of the apes. Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) was hired to direct and Austalian actor Jason Clarke was tapped to play the lead human, with Keri Russell and Gary Oldman in supporting roles. Unlike the first go-round, the hype surrounding Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a tad more palpable. Many thought Serkis deserved an Oscar nomination for his work in the first film, and the prospect of another amazing Serkis performance as well as a bigger budget and bigger scale were obviously enough to draw audiences in (the film opened with a massive 73 million dollars last weekend domestically).
I caught Dawn of the Planet of the Apes last Saturday night, and while I definitely liked it, I also have quite a few reservations about this film. It’s taken me almost a week to write this review. Dawn is a complicated film with an incredibly ambitious yet limited scope. It’s also an incredibly violent film, filled with murder and warfare. It is quite possibly the hardest PG-13 rated film I’ve ever seen and certainly the hardest since The Dark Knight in 2008. It is a dystopian future in this film with very little hope. This is a film where even the protagonists (particularly Caesar) make difficult decisions that are not easy to admire. No one comes off smelling like roses in this film, which makes it a very different kind of summer blockbuster, where the good guys win and everything is black and white.
Dawn is also a very long film. It is nearly a half hour longer than the film that preceded it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing except that Dawn is a nearly joyless and hopeless affair. Every short measure of success met by our protagonists is almost always shortly erased by a setback. Take, for example, Caesar’s decision to let the humans, led by Malcolm and Ellie (Jason Clarke and Keri Russell), into ape territory to repair a hydroelectric power plant. This decision is not taken lightly by Koba, the second-in-command bonobo monkey, who protests that Caesar is a human sympathizer. On the human end, Carver, a member of Malcolm’s repair group, smuggles a shotgun into ape territory, which immediately creates distrust between the groups. A powerful and trusting decision by Caesar leads to two betrayals.
Another criticism I have of this film is in Gary Oldman’s villainous character Dreyfus. Dreyfus is the leader of the band of humans and it is largely his idea to get power plant up and running. However, he also refuses to believe that the apes present a serious threat to the humans. The problem with this character is that he, like Carver, is almost too stupid to live in this environment. He should certainly be able to see the threat the apes exhibit to the humans, and this threat should lead to a certain amount of fear and respect of the apes’ culture. But he continually refers to them as nothing more than animals, despite the climactic battle at the end of the first film demonstrating otherwise. Dreyfus also disappears for long stretches of the film and is never very particularly threatening or upsetting on-screen. I’m not sure if the problem is particularly with the script or with Oldman himself, but I’d be willing to guess it’s more of a scripting issue.
With so much going on in this film, it is easy to forget how small the scale is. I don’t really have a problem with this, although to be honest I was expecting the scale to be a bit more epic, especially considering the fact that Fox doubled the budget of Rise for the second installment. Even though Maurice and Caesar claim to not have seen the humans in a few years, it is shortly after revealed that the humans are still bunkering down in San Francisco, where a pocket of a few hundred humans has tried to re-establish society. I have a hard time believing that Caesar would not have known about this. The apes are highly intelligent with keen senses – they would have known about the humans immediately.
The best parts of this film for me are the relationships between Malcolm and Caesar and Koba and Caesar. Malcolm and Caesar become unlikely allies and even friends, eventually gaining a mutual respect and admiration for one another. On the other hand, Koba and Caesar go from being respected friends and comrades to enemies, as Koba attempts to upend ape society in order to destroy the humans and become leader and near dictator of the apes. Koba is an amazingly accomplished character, perhaps even exceeding Caesar in some respects of characterization. Koba’s motivations are almost always understandable, which is a testament to the better aspects of the script as well as Toby Kebbell’s fantastic motion-capture performance coupled with the amazing special effects (which are even better here than in Rise). Speaking of motion-capture, Andy Serkis remains amazing as Caesar.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an incredibly complicated film with deep, thoughtful themes and conflict. It is simultaneously ugly and beautiful. It is difficult to watch but also immensely entertaining. Nearly one week after viewing Dawn, I am still having difficulty parsing out whether or not I liked the film, really liked the film, or loved the film. In some ways, I’m still not sure what I watched. It is an incredibly heavy film that I would almost compare to something like Apocalypse Now. Fox has taken an incredible gamble with this franchise, and it appears to have paid off not only for them but also for critics and audiences. I am incredibly interested in where things go for here. I’m not sure how the creative side behind Dawn of the Planet of the Apes can top themselves with the next installment. What an ambitious accomplishment.