Damn Awesome Apes
Allow me to admit to a film fan faux pas. I used to dismiss the original Planet of the Apes as cheesy camp. But can you blame me? The corny costuming, the silly premise, an over the top Charlton Heston. It’s an easy movie for the unaware to dismiss. Now I know better. The 1968 sci-fi classic blew audience’s minds when it first hit theaters. It’s a surprisingly sharp social commentary wrapped in an imaginative world of apes, humans and our natural connection between the two.
Fast forward 25 years to a modern reboot and while the original James Franco movie was good fun, the sequel has matched the excellence of the original. A breathtaking combination of action, social revelations and an award worthy performance by Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the must see movie in a sea of quality 2014 offerings.
Taking place 10 years after the events of Rise, humanity has been all but eradicated by the simian flu. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his nation of intelligent apes have built a sprawling society founded on the concepts of unity and strength. When Serkis first played Caesar in Rise, there was a strong campaign amongst fans for an Oscar nomination. Back then, I didn’t agree but Dawn is a monkey of a different color. The goal for any actor is to connect with his fellow cast mates and Serkis’ emotive eyes and patient work supersedes any computer aided magic or technical wizardry. His entire performance is controlled whether he’s leading a charge or cradling a newborn in his arms. Serkis more than deserves a Best Actor nomination come January. To deny him would be a crime.
Since humans haven’t been seen in almost decade, things become tense when a group of them discover the simian society. A colony of survivors have been living nearby for years but without the use of a hydroelectric plant, situated in the heart of ape territory, they won’t last much longer. Clan leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) wants to eradicate the apes but Malcolm (Jason Clarke) asks for three days to work out a deal. A refreshing shift from the standard man versus beast setup, each faction is fighting for their own survival. Since the narrative drive focuses on staying alive rather than fighting for power, it blurs the line between good and evil. In fact, the story is almost Shakespearian, with backstabbing and in fighting on both sides of the evolutionary tree.
When Rise was released, I thought the human actors were outdone by their CGI counterparts and while the apes still win on the acting front, the homo-sapiens do a much better job. Stereotypes like the anti-ape trouble maker, the cowering love interest (Keri Russell) and an over the top Oldman are prevalent, but the actors keep things believable with solid work. There are also a few silly plot holes that stretch your suspension of disbelief but not enough to ruin the experience.
And of course there’s a good amount of action, which is handled almost flawlessly. At first I thought apes with guns would cause Dawn to jump the shark, but it actually makes sense given the plot’s framework. Some exceptional shot direction enhances the experience, my favorite being a moment where an ape takes over a tank turret. Rather than focusing on the carnage he creates, director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) positions the camera at a fixed point behind him. As the turret turns, we see the growing sense of power from the attacking ape as opposed to the carnage he’s creating. Smart decisions and flourishes separate Dawn from your standard action fare.
Hollywood blockbusters are not supposed to be this good. When the summer season rolls out its usual roster of superheroes, rom-coms and fratboy / teenage comedies, we don’t expect much. Summer 2014 has been an entirely different animal and the sequel to the 2011 original continues what’s shaping up to be the best summer in recent memory. With an award worthy performance by Andy “Golem” Serkis, engaging action and a story worthy of the 1968 classic, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film going experience that will satisfy fans of every type and tradition. Charlton Heston would be proud.
Score: 9 out of 10