Thursday, July 10, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

As most people can probably agree, 2011's reboot of the seemingly buried sci-fi franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was a surprisingly great movie. I included it on my top ten list of the year and have seen it several times since it came out on DVD/Blu Ray. So when I heard there was going to be a sequel to that film, I couldn't have been more excited. Though I didn't review them, I went back and watched the original Planet of the Apes from the 1960's and even the 2001 reboot of the same name by Tim Burton. Needless to say one of those films is much better than the other (hopefully you know which one I mean), and Rise was an impressive reimagining of that original movie while also serving as a faithful origin story of sorts. Then when the trailers came out and early buzz began to spread about how good this movie was, I started to wonder whether this might somehow surpass the previous film in quality. I subsequently went into the press screening with fairly high expectations.

It's been years since the simian flu claimed its first victim. Since then the virus has spread across the entire world, taking millions of lives and sending the human race into chaos and devastating conflict. During that time Caesar and his fellow apes have built a home in the forests of Northern California, establishing a colony of sorts and even teaching his new family how to read, write, and occasionally speak. Their relatively peaceful lifestyle is disrupted, however, when a small group of humans bump into the tribe. They are swiftly banished by an angered Caesar for their panic-driven gunshot to the shoulder of one of his friends, but not before the ape leader impresses some of the travelers with his advanced intelligence. The group of humans head back to their own village of survivors to inform their leader of what they witnessed. In desperate need of the power provided by a deserted dam on the land claimed by Caesar's tribe, the humans must decide whether to attack the intelligent primates or try to find another source of power and risk being attacked themselves.

First off, I should probably mention that this is not going to be a fun popcorn movie that you can turn off your brain and enjoy. This is a challenging, intense, and emotional experience that you kind of need to gear yourself up for a little bit. It's a far more dramatic and thematic story than I think a lot of people might be prepared for, though the trailers do a pretty good job of establishing the tone of this film. Many critics are equating this chapter of the story to other successful yet dark sequels like The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight. While it may not be as fun as either of those two movies are at times, it is just as deep and complex (and slightly more unnerving). It's a very adult-centered film, and will definitely be disquieting for a lot of younger viewers with its content. Easily one of the darker blockbuster films in recent memory, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I might even say that it would be a disservice to the themes this movie chooses to tackle if it wasn't done in a serious and dare I say "gritty" way. 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is full of intricacies that I'm sure will reward multiple viewings, from the interplay between the humans and the apes, to the respective relationships within their separate civilizations. There are parts of this film that feel Shakespearean (which is fitting given the lead character's name), and the familial conflict as well as the fight for control among Caesar's clan rings true on a historical level. It also does something that could be construed as risky by focusing so much attention on the apes in the beginning, but director Matt Reeves understands that it's essential for the audience to care about all of its characters for us to be fully involved in their plight. In fact, we care so much about the apes that we're all transported into Caesar's shoes as he's pulled between two different and often conflicting worlds. The film does a tremendous job of fleshing out those themes of loyalty, betrayal, and the sacrifices that must be made to accomplish order. There's a real power struggle in this film that's expertly portrayed and constructed, both within the families of each side of the battle as well as between the leaders themselves.

While the ambitions of this film are truly commendable, it wouldn't be nearly as satisfying if the emotions weren't developed as fully as they are. The script is designed to engender our sympathies for both parties on a fairly equal level, giving every moment of action an additional dose of tension that most summer films can't hope to achieve. We as an audience don't want any of the characters to come into harms way, so when they inevitably do it becomes truly suspenseful and even frightening. My wife made the comment that this feels like a war movie, and the reason it works so well is because we really do care about the characters involved in this war.

What's crazy about our empathy for the apes isn't that they're a different species, but that they're entirely computer-generated (with the immeasurable help of motion capture artists like Andy Serkis). Rise of the Planet of the Apes had fairly good CGI creatures for the time, though there are some scenes where they don't quite hold up. In Dawn I forget that I'm looking at a visual effect half the time I'm watching these apes, so perfectly are the emotions of the actors portrayed and realized in their simian form. Serkis in particular delivers a brilliant performance with the movements, facial expressions, and even the voice of Caesar. His acting choices are perfect, and the emotion he brings to the film is impossible to describe. You seriously have to see this for yourself to understand how incredibly realized these characters are.

Another aspect that brings emotions into this film is the score, which is something I routinely comment on in these reviews. The soundtrack for this movie is composed by one of my favorites in Michael Giacchino who is most well-known for his musical scores for films like Up and Star Trek, as well as TV's Lost. He not only brings in the tender emotions like we've come to expect, but with nods to the original Planet of the Apes and even 2001: A Space Odyssey he layers the film with unease and sometimes dread at all the right moments. Though parts of the score remind me inescapably of his composition for Super 8, this is a really good score that works very well with the amazing visuals presented on screen.

There's a lot of artistry to this film, and subtle visual queues and parallels that I only realized after reflecting on the movie afterwards. It's obvious that a great deal of care and effort went into Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and I really want to see this one again to really appreciate all the layers in this story. The only question that remains for me is when the sequel will be released. The movie ends with a clear direction for a follow-up, and if it's half as good as this film then I know it's going to be great. I certainly couldn't have predicted how much I would love this movie, and I would go so far as to say that it blew all the previous Apes films out of the water (yes, even Rise of the Planet of the Apes).

This film will certainly be talked about come awards season, though it's yet to be seen whether just for the obvious technical categories or if Serkis and possibly the film itself will also receive some well-deserved recognition. For my money, this is easily one of the best (if not the best) films of the year. If you're not too intimidated by serious, dramatic sci-fi with some spectacular visual effects and gripping action scenes, then I whole-heartedly recommend this movie. I give Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a solid four stars.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language

**Are you excited to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes? If you have seen it, what did you think? Let me know in the comments section below!**