Film Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

The title of this sequel/prequel/reboot is a bit of misnomer, suggesting that the film will chronicle something of grave importance. Yet, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ultimately falls short of that promise. The title is also on the verbose side, and its length is one of the problems that the film itself shares.

These issues aside, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is still an exemplary piece of blockbuster entertainment. It’s beautifully realized aesthetically, emotionally resonant and attempts to broach difficult themes in a refreshing and cerebral way.

Set approximately ten years after the original reboot, Dawn depicts a world that has spiraled out of control. A huge percentage of the world’s human population has been decimated by a simian flu. This is something the film suggests was sparked by laboratory experiments depicted in the first film, which also gave the series’ main character Cesar his human-like intelligence.

After launching an ape revolt in San Francisco, Cesar (once again portrayed by Andy Serkis) now leads a thriving ape colony in the surrounding Californian hills. The community appears peaceful, utopian even; that is, until man shows up (depicted here as a small band of desperate San Franciscans looking for a new energy source) and begins screwing the pooch once again.

The main body of Dawn’s storyline circles this dynamic, and parses the age-old question regarding why it’s so difficult for different groups to live together, or at least interact positively. The film treats this theme with an undeniable level of intelligence, and is often so absorbing that the intrinsic silliness of the property (it’s about talking monkeys for Christ’s sake) gradually recedes into the background.

Dawn lives and dies on the strength of its lead character, and on this note both the film’s script and the performance by actor Serkis deliver in spades. Cesar is a marvelously complex creation, a character who is caught between having affection for each of the film’s two warring worlds. He is a dignified and dominating leader, but also possesses an aching emotional vulnerability for those he loves.

One can feel Serkis’s presence behind the beautiful computer pixels. Anyone who has ever seen the actor perform in the behind-the-scenes footage for LOTR, King Kong or the first Apes film knows about his full commitment to his parts. That quality shines through powerfully in Dawn, which, along with the first film, have turned Cesar into easily one of the most captivating CGI creations in movie history. Essentially, he comes across as being far more than just a “damn, dirty ape.”

With such attention given to the ape community, it really isn’t surprising that the human characters feel less involving. And yet, with the presence of such great actors in the cast – such as Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, and Keri Russel – the general banality of the human community does feel like a bit of a wasted opportunity.

But it’s not like the film’s script doesn’t attempt to offer these poor souls (the characters, not the actors portraying them) some semblance of an inner life. Clarke, for instance, who has probably the biggest role following Serkis, is a man reeling from the loss of his wife. He portrays a classic “everyman” role. He’s not the fastest or the fiercest of the humans, but he is called throughout the film to carry enormous burdens against impossible odds.

Clarke is highly effective in the part. Yet, his role symbolizes ultimately how forgettable the human characters are. Other figures such as Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus – who plays the flinty military leader of the humans – barely register. His character gets to leak out a tear or two during a scene where he looks at photographs of his pre-plague life, but  the film doesn’t invest anything more in his character, ultimately rendering the moment meaningless.

If anything, director Matt Reeves feels more interested in examining the origins of intractable conflict, not to mention the difficulty of maintaining a pragmatic, measured outlook when one is surrounded by raging extremists. The fact that the film is mostly successful with this goal is a wonderful accomplishment. It creates human drama so effective that by the time the film’s third act rolls around, complete with the obligatory PG-13 levels of violence, one feels the need to painfully roll the eyes.

It’s not that the climax of the film (a pitched, urban battle between apes and humans) is a failure. It’s just that it adheres to what has now become a painfully boring paradigm of the summer movie. It is overlong, and much of it is lacking in emotional specificity. Some of the battle scenes are also where the sublime effects by Weta begin to break down. It’s really just sad that films like this are required to end with so much superfluous bombast.

The underwhelming nature of the climactic action scenes also highlights that the ramifications of the film’s story feel surprisingly small. It’s a circular tale, with most of the characters ending up essentially back where they began. This feeling is reinforced by some bizarre directing choices, such as Reeves’ decision to bookend the film with two nearly identical shots. This doesn’t undercut the film’s intriguing, hypnotic look at why civilization is so difficult to build and maintain, but it does test an audience’s patience.

We have been given two pretty darn good films now where the Planet of the Apes has been promised to “rise” and “dawn.” Still, any real causality, or the story having a feeling of significant forward momentum, has yet to be evoked. Hell, if these two films are any indication, the real rise of Planet of the Apes (meaning a film that shows the apes definitively in control) is by no mean imminent. We’ve still got a long way to go.

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