Let’s get down to monkey business. sorry. I’m sorry.
Most big movies nowadays are advertisements for franchises rather than true stories about characters. I say this because Dawn of the Planet of the Apes made me realize what I was missing in a big franchise summer flick. At its best, this is one of the better blockbusters of the past few years, and what they all should try to be.
Stripping it down, Sci-Fi is about humans vs. the other. It’s in this battle that we learn something about humanity. Being a broad subject, Sc-Fi is pretty much limitless in what it can explore about humanity. For example, Edge of Tomorrow just used a high concept to creatively explore the “other.”
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the surprise hit of 2011. It showed us the origin of the Apes taking over the world. There’s a moment in it with the main character, Caesar, that has gone down in movie history. This film picks up about a decade after a virus wept out nearly all the humans. This is not entirely a movie about humans vs. apes; it’s a look at the rise and fall of civilizations. Shakespearean in its story beats, Caesar’s arc is the centerpiece and it’s an emotionally charged one. Let that sink in. A movie about a special effects ape is emotional.
Matt Reeves takes over directing duites, but this is the Andy Serkis show. He’s absolutely great as Caesar once again. Motion Capture technology is the best way to utilize CGI because of its affectations that only humans can make real. I would love to see Serkis get at least consideration for an Oscar nomination because what he does here is outstanding. With just facial expressions and body movements he creates what will undoubtedly go down as one of cinema’s greatest blockbuster characters.
Caesar and his apes have created a society just outside of San Francisco. With humans thought to be wept out, Caesar has created a family and microcosm of social cooperation and peace. Once it’s realized that a small group of humans are still alive, lines are blurred and loyalties are tested.
The movie’s best aspect is the apes characters and Reeves’ near silent film direction of the apes. Watching them communicate is as thrilling as the action scenes. They use hand signals to communicate with each other, but most importantly, they communicate feelings. Reeves takes basic human characteristics and applies them to apes. It’s like a much larger and more elaborate narrativeversion of the dawn of man in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s sooooo good that I wish it was an entire movie about the apes, but more on that later.
Reeves understands how to tell a story visually. The script is solid, save for a few convenient coincidences, but the motion capture acting and direction is the bread and butter. Reeves could use a bit of humor occasinally to lighten things up. It’s an ape movie after all! But his imagery and understanding of motion capture makes some of the images look better than most art house movies! The design of the apes’ home is like a real organic environment. From the story beats to the performances to the direction, the apes portion of the film is fully realized and engrossing cinema.
Thankfully there’s more of the apes than the humans who are inferior characters. As a whole, the humans are important in the overall theme of the film, but they’re cardboard cutouts. Jason Clarke’s character, Malcom, is the one human character with decent characterization. Keri Russell and Gary Oldman as the villain is absolutely wasted. Malcom’s son falls flat. And it’s too bad because the thematic parallels become thin and the latter half of the film is lopsided.
As I said, the film’s strength is the Ape characters and how they live. I’d say it’s 70% about the apes and 30% about the humans. You’ll buy the apes as real empathetic characters. The humans are used as a mirror for the potentials of violence, but it only works on a thematic level. As characters and story it comes off as lopsided, and a little constricting to the apes’ story. However, Clarke’s Malcom parallels Caesar as a father figure and leader of the humans well enough that it doesn’t hurt the emotion of the film.
Once the story progresses and the humans become involved, we see unruliness in the apes civilization. Power poisons their social structure. Leading this uproar is Toby Keel’s ape, Koba. Once humans enter this picture, the narrative gets a bit too congested to let it all fully land. There’s too many plot points for Reeves to fully balance his Apespearean ambitions.
The more complex ideas about humanity and the fall of civilizations are left in favor of action sequences, which is somewhat disappointing, but their conflicts being turned into a fist fight has a brawling poetry to it. They’re apes after all. The action is too busy when it’s full of loads of apes and humans, but Reeves handles the one on one fights excellently.
If the third act was too constricted in its narrative then the final moments are where Reeves makes up for it with a beautiful crescendo that encompasses Caesar’s journey and the shakespearean ambitions of the film. It’s a goose bump inducing moment that perfectly encapsulates what the film is about. I felt like cheering.
Dawn of the Planet of Apes‘ story isn’t as buoyant or complete as its predecessor’s, but it’s more powerful. Reeves focuses on Caesar and his apes’ world before expanding, a bit messily, into a conflict that will lead to a bigger film. It’s not a perfectly balanced film and its human characters only work for thematic reasons, but it’s one of the best all around blockbuster experiences I’ve had in a while. Who would’ve thought that an Apes franchise would be so damn entertaining?