MOVIE REVIEW: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes



Let me start by saying that I was wrong going into "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" three years ago.  Dead wrong.  In my review then, I went to great length to describe my enormous apprehension about the unknown reboot.  After three extensive and spoiler-heavy trailers (#1, #2, and #3), I felt that everything the movie could have offered was bottled into those six minutes and change from three trailers.  Little did I know the depth and ambition Rupert Wyatt's film really had going for it underneath its marketing surface and hype.  

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" ranks for me as one of the most refreshing surprises I've ever seen as a critic and moviegoer.  Rarely has my negative compass for something been so utterly righted by success.  The film is a phenomenal science fiction spectacle, a solid summer film as any before it or since, and easily one of the best franchise reboots of all-time.  "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" has triple the smarts and appeal of Tim Burton's ominously bad 2001 remake of the 1968 original.  The had a plan, teased a new beginning, and executed a tremendous first step into something new and definitively its own.  

The deft stage-setting and world-building of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" has brought us to "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."  In opposite fashion to the spoiler-filled trailers of the first film, this one has kept its hand wisely close to the vest.  Original director Rupert Wyatt was quietly switched in favor of "Cloverfield" director Matt Reeves and writing team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver got a boost from "Fifty Shades of Gray" and "The Wolverine" screenwriter Mark Bomback.  The first teaser six months ago was the ittiest-bittiest glimpse of promise, which is all a teaser should be.  Provoke and tantalize were the goals and all it took was some rain and Caesar.  Its second trailer, which still showed very little, was just two months ago, hitting right in the May start of the summer season.  Most other summer blockbusters have had full trailers and TV spots in heavy rotation since the winter.  

Not until this film's third and final trailer did the real frenzy start.  It waited to strike during the slowest and most mediocre month of June in recent movie memory.  The May holdovers were played out and the "Transformers: Age of Extinction" pre-hype saturation was at its nauseating peak.  This raised the bar.  When that trailer hit, everything changed,  I don't think there's been a better trailer all year, in fact.  Since then, the early reviews have started to bubble up to the interweb surface.  Comparisons have been made to "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" matching the franchise impact of "The Empire Strikes Back" or "The Dark Knight" as superior and groundbreaking second films.  

To come full circle after admitting the hype was all wrong three years ago on "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," I'm hear to tell you the opposite for "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."  Every single positive piece of praise and advanced buzz about this movie is completely true.  The is the best movie I have seen this summer, by a landslide.  This film is tremendous on every single level.  This is the summer blockbuster you need to pay to see.  This is the movie you'll make a point to put on the shelf or the digital library in the future.  This is the movie that, years from now, you will point to as the coming out party for something even bigger that's happened since.  This is the movie we were promised and were waiting for.  This one is going to leave a mark on our cinematic memory.  As always, I promise that what follows is SPOILER-FREE.

To catch you up from the end credits of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," the virus that was used to increase the apes' intelligence is deadly to humans.  Dubbed "simian flu," it has ravaged the globe killing billions, leaving only small pockets of human survivors.  Ten years have passed since the events of the first film.  Caesar (played again by Andy Serkis) and his smart primates have multiplied, continued to learn, and have carved out a vast forest community spanning Mount Tamalpais State Park and Muir Woods north of San Francisco.  They thrive in these natural surroundings with Caesar as the unquestioned governing leader.  The apes haven't seen a human in two years.

When an exploration team of humans from San Francisco, led my Malcolm ("Zero Dark Thirty" star Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell), ventures north seeking to repair a hydroelectric dam for power to the city, the paths of apes and man cross again and the implications of how each group affect the other builds this film's tension.  Caesar's second-in-command and military leader, Koba, the lap-experimented bonobo chimp from the first film (played by Toby Kebbell from "War Horse"), is highly distrusting of the humans and implores Caesar to react to their presence with strength.  Caesar sees the good in Malcolm, his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee of "The Road"), and Ellie, but knows the rest of the humans, led by Gary Oldman's Dreyfus, will not be as understanding or accepting.  Still, he would rather broker peace than start a war.  A clash of ape leadership, combined with the humans arming themselves with guns, sparks volatile results.

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is exactly in line with "The Empire Strikes Back," "The Godfather: Part II," and "The Dark Knight" as an extremely strong second film in a series that improves upon the solid footing of the first film and expands the story and surroundings to something larger, headier, and heavier.  This film takes the high road over campiness even more so than "Godzilla" did earlier this summer to present its blockbuster with a stern straight face.  "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" maintains a credible tone of seriousness over farce while operating as evocative post-apocalyptic science fiction.  Unlike most of the original series from the 1970's, the scale and character interaction is more intimate, unforced, and poignant.  The result is a film that feels more important than entertaining and it is exactly that.  The drama trumps the action, though both arrive and hit strongly when called upon.

The greatest filmmaking achievement of the first film in 2011 was the leap in respectability it gave "performance capture" acting and computer characterization.  Andy Serkis may have done more with "King Kong" and Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" series in the past, but he knocked the potential for performance capture out of the park with Caesar in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," putting an emotive CGI character in a lead role ahead of its human counterparts.  In a nearly mute performance, Serkis carried the first film and earned serious consideration, and rightly so that year, in the race for the Best Supporting Actor category at the Academy Awards.

That success of realized potential three years ago has been enhanced and completely conquered by "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" today.   Serkis gets top billing over the human stars and its well deserved.  Jason Clarke does a find job as his parallel, but this is Serkis's show.  He once again takes the craft to a whole new level.  Screw anything in the animation department Robert Zemeckis has done for performance capture like "Beowulf," "The Polar Express," or "The Christmas Carol."  Those films feel hollow and lifeless compared to the vibrant range of emotion, expression, and characterization achieved by Serkis, Kebbel, and their fellow performers.  This is the new standard for not just technical proficiency, but the technology's use for character creation and interaction.

Without the success of performance capture, you wouldn't have a movie or a franchise.  If the technology could not deliver the unique performances or could not appear both convincing and captivating, you lose the audience.  If it was shoddy work, we would spend the whole time laughing at the fakeness and poking holes in its looks rather than soaking in the story.  We've done that before with apes in rubber masks and prosthetics.  Most films that have tried performance capture outside of Zemeckis, including the upcoming "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" remake, have kept it small-scale, encompassing a character or two and most still failed.

That is now the greatest achievement of this film building from the first one.  The performance capture IS the film's core.  The apes are your leads.  The apes are the well-rounded characters with back stories that you invest in and probably end up rooting for before it's all said and done.  Caesar and the other apes grab and command your attention, your interest, and, more often than not, your heart.  They do so because of the absolutely seamlessness by which they are created with this evolving technology.  The technology has now become capable enough to convey true performance and not be a gimmick for flashy looks and special effects.  "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" justifies the continuing growth and capability of this type of performance and does so delivering a knockout blockbuster that truly resonates.

LESSON #1: THE PROTECTIVE FAMILIAL ROLE OF FATHERS-- You will see in this film that, at its core, we're watching two fathers wrestle with raising their sons in a treacherous world.  Both Caesar and Malcolm have teenage sons that waver between fear and action in this new conflict.  The two fathers know better than their sons what dangers exist around them, and they try to prepare their sons for a good path.  Both fathers know their sons needs to become their own men at some point as well.  A father's natural role is to play the protector and put family before themselves.     

LESSON #2: THE BURDEN OF A LEADER TRYING TO MAINTAIN OR SAVE HIS CIVILIZATION-- Both Caesar and Malcolm, in addition to being fathers, each represent the best intentions of what their respective societies want and can achieve.  Both have the burden of trying to maintain that amid strife, chaos, prejudices, and conflicting views from within.  Both leaders have to make important choices that could irrevocably change their society's course of peace and survival.  Good leaders makes the right choices and can handle the weight of those consequences.

LESSON #3: APES AND HUMANS HAVE MORE SIMILARITIES THAN WE ALL REALIZE-- Humans and chimpanzees may be separated by one pair of chromosomes and different physical looks, but that's where the gaps start to end.  Yes, the nature of the apes' advanced intelligence in this film's world heightens this lesson a little, but, animalisticly, we men and women are quite similar to them.  We both protect and love our mates, offspring, and families.  We both cling to our surroundings as shelter and home and, most importantly, we both have feelings and emotions that drive our actions and personalities.  We call most of these qualities "humanity," but it is really something shared with our primate relatives as well.  We don't have exclusivity to those behaviors.  In the end, we're not that different.