Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (2014)

Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke and Toby Kebbell
Written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Directed by Matt Reeves
Rated PG-13 - Violence, strong language, frightening images
Running Time: 131 Minutes

Ten years have passed since Caesar (Andy Serkis) led his revolt of genetically enhanced apes and retreated into the forests outside of San Francisco. While the apes set up their peaceful new society in seclusion, the outside world plunged into chaos: the sickness born from the same experimental drug that gave Caesar and his friends their enhanced intelligence ravages the human population, killing millions. Now, Caesar wonders if there are any humans left at all.

He's soon answered when a party of survivors from San Francisco, trekking through the forest to a nearby dam in hopes of reviving it for electrical power, stumbles across the apes and wounds one of them. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) returns to San Francisco and tells Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) that the damn will work, if only the apes will let them through their territory to do the necessary repairs. He takes a couple of men along with his wife Ellie (Kerri Russell) and son Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and negotiates with Caesar.

Malcolm finds much in common with Caesar, who leads the apes but also looks to protect his family and friends, and the two begin to bond. But Kobo (Toby Kebbell), one of Caesar's friends and advisors, spent much of his life being tortured and experimented on by humans, and doesn't trust them. When he discovers that Dreyfus is arming the human colony for war despite Malcom's pleas for peace, he begins to clash with Caesar. With hatred and mistrust on both sides, Malcolm and Caesar realize that they may be the only ones who can stop the coming war.

Ah, the superior sequel! How rare you are! Even rarer is a summer blockbuster film with such emotion and strong performances in addition to first-rate special effects.

I was surprised by "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," as I gather many were. It came without much fanfare in August of 2011 and quickly became a surprise hit. A couple years later, we're dealing with its aftermath and in many ways we find that the filmmakers have learned exactly what they needed to from that first experience.

Matt Reeves, who did not direct the first film, steps in and creates a film that takes its time with its characters and makes sure that all the impressive action sequences flow as consequences of the actions and feelings of those characters, rather than spectacle for its own sake (because, y'know, as much as I love "Transformers"... man this is better).

Andy Serkis and the team that brought Caesar to life need every acclaim heaped on them that they can get. Never before has a motion-captured performance felt so natural and involving, and I thought Caesar was an incredible creation in 2011. Now older and wiser, Caesar has a wider vocabulary and the script gives him a lot more conflict. From his facial expressions to his struggling, but slowly improving, speech patterns, Caesar is a filmmaking marvel. And it's not just special effects - Caesar is a fundamentally human character, real and emotional. He struggles with his responsibilities as a leader to protect the apes and their society, but also to have his conscience as a man.

The themes of family and trust and letting go of hatred to build something better run deep and clear through "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," with both Malcolm and Caesar struggling desperately to find that balance. Caesar looks upon the surviving humans with pity, and though he knows of the long history of violence between their two races, he figures that letting the humans have their lights might allow for peace between them. But he's also seen the good side of humans, something a lot of his friends never got. The rift it causes between them, especially Koba, forms the heart of much of the film's conflicts.

Toby Kebbell performs Koba nearly as well as Serkis' Caesar. Koba is angry, and wants vengeance for the acts performed on him by humans (seen in "Rise," as Koba is one of the returning ape characters along with Maurice and Rocket, whom Caesar helped free in that film), but he also loves Caesar. It gives weight to Koba's actions later, both on a grand sense when he leads the charge against the humans, but also in the small moments when he tries desperately to get Caesar to see his point of view.

Also of note is Nick Thurston as Blue Eyes, Caesar's son. The relationship between the two of them is incredibly well realized, and as a character, Blue Eyes gets a lot of great moments, particularly in the second half of the film as he tries to figure out whether to support Koba or his father. A scene of reconciliation between Blue Eyes and Caesar just before the climax is a wonderful moment between father and son - and they're not even human.

And that's one of the best takeaways from this film - that it does a wonderful job making the ape characters and the workings of their society front and center. You will, I guarantee, care more about Caesar and his apes than any of the humans in this movie.

But that's also one of the film's few flaws: the human characters, even the good ones, don't feel as well-rounded as the apes. Malcolm and his family are somewhat broadly drawn, and almost feel more like they just serve the purpose of propping up the apes. This is not to say that the humans are badly written - in fact, Gary Oldman's Dreyfus is great in every scene he's in and also has more depth than one would expect for a character with so little screen time. But that's it, so much time is given to the apes that the humans feel like supporting characters.

The film ends on a note of promise for an epic third picture. To spoil it would be criminal, but let me just say that Caesar faces more hard choices as a leader, ones that will make a third film in this new rebooted "Planet of the Apes" one I will eagerly anticipate.

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