film-review-dawn-planet-apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the least-likely success of 2011, resurrecting a supremely strange franchise that had already had one stalled revival ten years before. Now comes the sequel (which, in retrospect, should have had the Rise moniker, with Dawn going to the first one, since that makes more sense, but oh well), empowered with a much larger budget and burdened with much higher expectations. Hollywood is using hundreds of millions of dollars to make apes ride horses while dual-wielding machine guns. What a time to be alive.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place ten years after Rise, which ended with the global spread of a virus that is deadly to humans but makes all other simians sapient. Now, thousands of self-aware chimps, orangutans, and gorillas live in an Ewok-esque colony in the woods near San Francisco. They’re lead by Caesar (Andy Serkis), the revolutionary leader of the first film who is now a chieftain, as well as a family man (er, ape). The apes live a peaceful existence of cooperation and unity, right up until their path collides with that of human survivors who want to refurbish a nearby hydroelectric dam. After a tense first meeting, human leader Malcolm (Jason Clarke) brokers an uneasy truce with Caesar. But while Malcolm and his family come to a slow understanding with the apes, the other humans, like Malcolm’s co-leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) are not nearly as trusting. Nor are many of the apes, for that matter — particularly Caesar’s lieutenant, Koba (Toby Kebbell), who bears a grudge against humanity for his past as a laboratory subject. Friction between the two tribes escalates as the film goes on, building to a confrontation that no one really wants, but all seem unable to prevent.

Dawn’s first fifteen minutes or so, concentrating only on the apes’ daily life and consisting of no spoken dialogue (there’s some sign language), are almost perfect. The blending of the gorgeous Pacific redwood vistas with the near-photoreal computer-generated apes makes for an incredible watch. Serkis received minor Oscar rumblings for his motion-captured performance in Rise, and both the technology and his brilliantly subtle facial expressions have only improved since then. If Serkis had been born in an earlier era, we’d speak of him in the same breath as Keaton and Chaplin and Pickford. And his people-with-dots-glued-to-them contemporaries are just as good, Kebbell especially. I easily could have watched a whole movie with just the apes.

But of course, the conflict between apes and humans is the recurrent backbone of the Planet of the Apes series, and whatever relevant social parallels such conflict can evoke are its thematic bread and butter. Thankfully, this film doesn’t try to draw a parallel between apes and the plight of minorities, which previous entries in the series have done to cringeworthy effect (although the tribal trappings of the apes existence could draw some iffy readings). Anyway, the humans come in, and of course they are less interesting than the apes, though Clarke is nicely sympathetic, as is Keri Russell as his wife. The movie doesn’t attempt to give them equal screen time with the apes, which is fine. Though this does steer the plot in a direction that’s somewhat different from where it looks like it’ll be going at the outset, and not quite in a good way.

The movie spends around half of its run time winching tight the relationship between the ape and human settlements. But when violence does break out, it’s due to a series of events that are run through quickly in hopes that the viewer doesn’t realize how little sense they make. Worse, they leave the movie’s sympathies oddly lopsided in favor the humanity, which is not what it intends. While Dreyfus’s paranoid drive to ready his town for war doesn’t help anything, that ends up being the most aggressive action taken by the human side, save a few stray outbursts by one jerk played by Kirk Acevedo. It’s strange that the apes talk about not wanting to be “like humans” when the nastier side of humanity is left mainly to inference. True, it’s there if you know, well, anything at all about history or current events, or even see the previous film. But this story, on its own, is sort of bereft of it. Koba and Dreyfus are supposed to be two sides of the same coin, but after a certain point, Koba’s actions seem unmotivated in their maliciousness, while Dreyfus actually comes across as pretty logical.

In the original Planet of the Apes, all that had to be done to remind the viewer of humanity’s senseless drive towards destruction was one now-infamous shot of a ruin. Here, the background devastation is the result of such a random incident (a virus that was accidentally released, and originally made to fight Alzheimer’s) that it has much less symbolic impact. The movie uses this as a stage to tell an allegory about people’s inherent inability to overcome minor differences for their own collective good, and instead fight over the differences they use as excuses to declare one another less than human. The metaphor is solid enough, but not particularly deep. It may seem semi-miraculous coming from a summer blockbuster, and it does indeed elevated it to what could be the best of its lot for this summer, but that doesn’t make it especially smart.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is grimmer than I thought any movie with that title could be. And it does indeed manage to wring genuine emotion out of a good amount of moments! But then an ape rides through a wall of flame on a horse while dual-wielding machine guns. Which is awesome, and something I am entirely in favor of, but it’s also at odds with the fact that the movie sets the audience up to not want this fighting. You can’t have it both ways. Or rather, you might be able to with a better sense of humor, or a more consistent shifting of tone, at least.

I might sound oddly down on Dawn, but I did like it. I wish every big budget film were made with this level of care towards character and emotional work (although this one still drops into the pitfall of marginalizing women – and I don’t really care if that’s biologically accurate to ape behavior, since, hello, these are super intelligent apes). But it’s because it demands to be taken seriously, I do so, and in the process I have to end up shrugging at a lot of the intellectual points the movie is trying to make. Not that I disagree with any of them — I just haven’t been moved as much as it hoped I would be. But the movie is still rife with great beats, and makes for a rewarding experience.