Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes dominated the box office this past weekend, almost sending the Transformers into its own Age of Extinction. Just as it did in the 1970s, it seems the country is gripped in Planet of the Apes mania once again. Biff Bam Pop! contributor Jim Knipp got out to the movies this weekend and saw it for himself. Check out his thoughts, after the jump.

I went into Dawn of Planet of the Apes accompanied by the natural enemy of all summer movies…

…a hungry mountain gorilla?
…hungry mountain gorillas?

…the curse of high expectations.

I had loved the 2011 gritty reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Loved the concept, loved the writing, the interplay between Caesar and James Franco and John Lithgow, loved the somewhat imperfect (but still compelling) CGI.  Perhaps most of all, I loved the fact they added plot points (genetic manipulation, the simian flu) that gave some realism to the whole “Earth taken over by highly evolved apes” concept, something that was missing in the campy (if beloved) versions from the 60s and 70s.

..what, time traveling chimpanzees aren't realistic?
…what, time traveling chimpanzees who breed at the speed of light and survive a nuclear holocaust aren’t realistic?

 

So with such a tough act to follow, you can understand my trepidation as I entered the theater on Saturday.  Needless to say, my worry was for naught.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes outshines not only the rebooted Rise, but every other movie in the series… maybe even every other movie released this summer.  It is an incredible piece of film making, complete with a gripping plot that ratchets up the tension with every moment, and compelling, believable characters that you will find yourself invested in.

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…especially this guy…

 

The movie starts ten years after the events of Rise.  The simian flu has claimed 99.5% of the world’s population, and ten years of war, disease, and accidents have driven the human race to near extinction.  Out in the Muir Woods surrounding San Francisco, the evolved apes, have built a community with Ceasar as their leader.  Ceasar has a wife, a nearly grown son, “Blue-eyes” who is impulsive as any teenager, a newborn infant, and the almost cult-like support of his followers, including Koba – the scarred and angry chimpanzee that Ceasar wins over in the first movie.  The apes speak mostly with sign language, coordinate complex hunting plans, and generally have each other’s backs, best depicted when Koba rescues Ceasar and son from an angry grizzly bear. The scenes in Muir Woods are gorgeous and show us that the apes have formed an almost ideal, utopian society.  An Ape Eden.

 

..without all this crazy stuff happening…
…without all this crazy stuff happening…

 

Paradise, of course, must always be lost; and stumbling into this utopia are a band of human survivors, led by Malcom.  This smaller group are part of a large community of humans who have been living on borrowed fuel (and time) in a quarantined section of San Francisco.  They’ve managed to re-route wiring to a nearby hydroelectric dam that would provide power to the community and perhaps allow humanity to start regrouping again.  The problem is the dam lies right in the middle of Ape territory.  Most of the movie is a fascinating mix of science fiction, political thriller, and parable as both the humans and the apes end up separating into different camps.  Professional chameleon Gary Oldman’s plays Dreyfus, the human “bad guy” who, quite frankly isn’t so bad.  He’s basically what Commissioner Gordon would be like if he survived a plague, civil unrest, and felt the fate of the entire human race rested in his hands.

 

so…just like commissioner Gordon?
which sounds like… um… Commissioner Gordon…

 

On the Ape side, the discord settles around Koba, who still bears the emotional as well as the physical scars of the animal testing done to him for decades.  (One of the most compelling scenes in the movie comes after Ceasar declares they should let the humans do their “human work,” Koba points to his many scars and says “This is human work.”  It gave me chills and sent the packed audience on Saturday murmuring.  His motives are clear, and you can’t entirely blame him for many of his actions.  He truly believes he is acting in the best interest of his people.

…and doesn't this look just like the face of reason?
…and doesn’t this look just like the face of reason?

 

I’m not going to spoil the movie, but suffice it to say that there’s betrayal, action, sacrifice, and some excellent acting.  The irony?  With all due respect to Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit McPhee, and Gary Oldman, the most compelling actors of this film only exist on Director Matt Reeves’ hard drive.  Quite simply, this movie belongs to the monkeys.

 

…for the last time, we're apes, not monkeys...
…for the last time, Knipp, we’re apes, not monkeys…

 

The CGI and the motion capture in this movie are impeccable, and allow for a measure of “acting” I don’t think we’ve ever seen in a movie of this nature.  Not only do we see (and believe) that we’re looking at real apes who have made a giant evolutionary step towards “humanity”, we see every tear coursing down Ceasar’s face, the fierce, tribal painted scowl of Koba, fur matting in the northern California rain, and the progressive scabbing over of Blue-Eyes’ wounds.  The film featured a veritable army of motion-capture artists, not only Andy Serkis, but Judy Greer (Cornelia), and Toby Kebbell (Koba).  It’s a stunning achievement, one that may be the strongest sign yet that we’re heading towards a future where all the acting will be done behind the scenes.

If there’s one complaint, the movie was a touch too long…

 

..sort of like this blog post?
…sort of like this blog post?

 

…with a third act that took the plot in a less than expected (and maybe not optimal) place.  They set themselves up nicely for a third movie (the thus far unannounced, but no way it’s not coming Battle for the Planet of the Apes).  And I will be waiting for it, with the highest expectations of all.

 

 

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