Review: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

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There’s a shot in Dawn of the Planet in the Apes in which an evil chimpanzee rides into battle on horseback, machine gun in each hand, amidst a backdrop of menacing orange flames.

…And it doesn’t feel the least bit absurd.

That is an accomplishment in and of itself, and just one example of the film’s ability to make you believe and care about a world that at first sounds like a campy joke. The movie is technically an action blockbuster, sure — a movie with gun-toting monkeys on horses couldn’t be anything else. But whereas most big-budget summer movies don’t deliver much more than simple entertainment, Dawn is a rare overachiever. It filled me with excitement, awe, admiration of the technical achievement the movie represents, and food for thought regarding the nature of cooperation and conflict.

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A continuation of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which in turn was a reboot of the legendary franchise dating back to 1968, Dawn paints a picture of a world shared by a withering human population and the race of intelligent apes they inadvertently created. The apes don’t trust the humans, the humans don’t trust the apes. Both sides have valid, understandable reasons. From this core of distrust comes little acts of trickery, betrayal, and violence that inevitably spin out of control into a bigger conflict. The kind of conflict in which monkeys decide to pick up machine guns and get on top of horses.

I haven’t read many reviews for Dawn, but I’ll go ahead and assume a few of the more pretentious ones make a comparison between the ape-human conflict in the movie and the current round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Which isn’t to compare one of those sides to monkeys; because, as one character points out early on, the apes are not normal apes. At this point, the movie basically portrays a fight between a group of hairy people and a group of smooth people.

On either side of a deeply emotional and complex conflict like the one taking place in the Middle East, it’s almost impossible to view that conflict objectively once a side has been taken.  We’re all humans reading this (I would assume), so it would be easy to guess, especially based on the history of cinema and even the history of this franchise, that we’d be set up to side with the humans. But the magic of this movie is that it always keeps audience’s sympathetic towards both groups. It serves as a startlingly accurate portrayal of the dual folly and validity of inter-group conflict. Believe it or not, we can learn from this. We can learn from the movie where monkeys shoot guns at people.

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The audience doesn’t necessarily want the humans to win or the apes to win. The audience is made to want a peaceful end to the conflict. Think about how impressive that is: in most action movies, the audience can’t wait to get to the battle. But by the time the epic violence breaks out in this film, it feels like a tragedy. 

As in many conflicts, both sides as a whole want peace, even though specific subsets or individuals want only the destruction of the other. On the human side, Gary Oldman’s (wasted) character has lost his family and blames the apes and will never accept them as anything but murderous savages. His mirror is Koba, an ape from Rise who was experimented on by humans and will never accept them as anything but murderous savages. But hey, neither would you if the only human you ever knew was Malfoy.

Stuck in the crossfire is the series’ main hero Caesar, who has seen the good in humanity (thanks to James Franco) but wishes to remain loyal to his own kind. The main thrills of this film don’t come from the action scenes but from the politics: the negotiations, arguments, agreements, acts of deception. Yet it’s all just as exciting as the scenes where Mr. Monkeyhorse Gunnington rushes into battle.

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Who’s to thank for a movie that is as thoughtful as it is thrilling? Pretty much everyone involved. Director Matt Reeves (previously of Cloverfield and Let Me In) is a master craftsman, offering up both intimate moments between two or three characters and large-scale scenes of chaos. The most epic moments in the film almost make us forget that the whole thing still takes place only in one small area around San Francisco.

I guess technically this could have been called Dawn of the County of the Apes, amirite? Anyone? Okay.

Though i’ve iterated multiple times that the action is not the main attraction, boy does Reeves know how to choreograph action. These balls-to-the-wall sequences are easily the film’s most visually impressive. There’s a glorious 360 degree tank shot in one scene that everyone is already talking about.

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Meanwhile, the screenwriters do a near-perfect job of allowing us to sympathize with almost every character, and telling us everything we need to know about the world with as little dialogue as possible (after all, the monkeys do speak in short, clipped sentences).  The one weak link in the script is the human characters, who are much less interesting and of much less consequence than the monkeys. They aren’t as poorly written as in Godzilla (don’t get me started), and at the very least each human gets at least one moment where they help emphasize the possibility and potential of peace. But compared to a character as complex as Caesar, the homosapiens are about as bland as they come.

And then there are the special effects people, who may just be the most important players in making this film so believable. Go back and watch the monkeys from Jumanji. Now watch this movie and see how far technology has come. Even compared to Rise, the motion capture work is leaps and bounds ahead of everything else, even putting Avatar’s stoic Na’vi to shame at times. The apes display just as much emotion as the human actors while still looking and moving like you’d expect of primates. At times I began to forget I was watching beings that don’t actually exist — it’s that convincing.

1280-dawn-planet-apesI guess a big part of this success also comes from Andy Serkis’ central performance as Caesar, which in another universe might even be an Oscar contender. Serkis anchors this movie emotionally and physically. His intimidating presence and compassionate facial expressions blend to create a truly dynamic character who just happens to be a monkey. At this point, Ceasar is the undisputed star of the series, and it’s a shame most moviegoers don’t even know who Andy Serkis is (he has also been King Kong and Gollum, for those who don’t know). 

Do I have anything else negative to say about this movie? Yeah, I guess the ending takes the cheap route of setting up for a third movie, but you’ll immediately want a third movie, so it doesn’t much matter. Basically, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the most satisfying, well-rounded summer blockbusters I have ever seen. It’s almost (but not quite) on par with The Dark Knight in terms of craft and depth. It does what the best science fiction always does, showing us something about our own world through a whole new world. This series has evolved just as significantly as the apes.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

Clarke-and-Serkis-DAWN-OF-THE-PLANET-OF-THE-APES– Sam 

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