Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) Film Review, a movie directed by Matt Reeves, and starring Judy Greer, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kevin Rankin, Keir O’Donnell, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Andy Serkis, Kirk Acevedo, Jason Clarke, Terry Notary, Larramie Doc Shaw, Enrique Murciano, and J.D. Evermore.
At the last They Might Be Giants show I attended, the Johns divided the audience mid-show. They demanded that the crowd split itself straight down the middle, leaving a gap in the center; this is a borderline out-of-hand demand given the matchbox dimensions of Asbury Park’s Stone Pony. We obliged as best we could and upon forming two sweaty and separate collectives, received our orders: on cue, one half of the audience would shout, “PEOPLE! PEOPLE! PEOPL!” as loudly as possible. When this stopped, the other half would, on cue, shout, “APES! APES! APES!” This primal pas de deux would go on for several minutes, the band jamming in the background, until a winner could be deduced from the two mobs.
The contest and outcome are not particularly important. I shouted. I did not spill my beer. It was awesome.
I’m not sure how useful an anecdote this may prove in unpacking the now-playing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. We proceed, stretching messy lines between the dots of alternative pop music and the latest blockbuster using what could only be described as a bulky, blunt, lead-less pencil.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the sequel to the the reboot/prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes which followed Tim Burton‘s 2001 “re-imagining” which in turn follows a run of five feature films, two television series and one French novel by a man named Pierre Boulle.
So: Hollywood smells a viable brand name (movies that make action figures must make suits salivate). And: we smell a tentpole, another big-time mid-July Biggest Movie Ever that’s going to stuff the recliner seats of multiplexes and sell mountains of burnt popcorn.
But: here’s the thing. Planet of the Apes was never dumb. Clumsy, sure, and full of half-plotted metaphors of terrific heft that are perfectly happy to sit motionless in the sun. But the franchise’s one conceit (humanity examining humanity via apes) is still as elegant as when Charlton Heston roamed the Earth. And Matt Reeves, aided partly by a Hollywood “chuck it all til something holds” philosophy/budget and chiefly by the mo-cap wizard Andy Serkis crafts another messy slab of sci-fi that’s more than willing to stick humanity’s nose back in the muck.
That Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opening montage compacts Mankind’s downfall into capital letter, Grade A buzzwords like PANDEMIC, GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN, and NUCLEAR FALLOUT should surprise no one. Good, wrenching science-fiction isn’t afraid to swing for the fences in social scope because good, wrenching science-fiction isn’t afraid to be silly because it already knows it is. The appeal of sending our fiction into the far out and foreign has always lied in taking that seemingly unknown reflection and piecing together the machinations of the real. The problem is that sometimes the signal we get back from out space fiction is so garbled, it’s hard to discern what was even at stake in the first place.
And if this newest venture isn’t dumb, it certainly not unmessy. In the course of two and a half (mostly involving) hours of film, we see a hulking cinematic machine trying to digest gun violence paranoia, overt militarism vs aggressive isolationism, inevitable environmental collapse, and new world authoritarianism all while trying to keep the whirling set pieces propulsive enough to justify 3D ticket sales.
But the film isn’t about these social buzzwords and it’s certainly not about any auterist vision on the part of Mr. Reeves. It is about a contingency of hyper-intelligent simians coming to grips with their own consciousness/consciences while dealing with a straggler group of homo sapiens just trying to make it in 2014’s version of the post-apocalypse. Every name in the lengthy credits should be applauded because what a job these mouse-clickers and digi-artists have down with this menagerie of simians. Even since 2011’s Rise, motion-capture technology looks to have buckled down, so much so that most people won’t mind the first twenty minutes or so of the film being digital renderings of apes. One of Dawn‘s neat tricks: since most of the apes communicate via sign language, subtitles abound onscreen. How refreshing to see a blockbuster with enough self-control to drop its busting down to a whisper!
When the film does commit to shouting, it’s loud enough to satisfy popcorn crushing teeth and coherent enough to resist din status. If there’s nothing as artfully crafted as the Golden Gate Bridge sequence from the last go-round, a late sequence involving a in-construction skyscraper comes close. And an assaulting moment of straight ahead battle, shot from the perspective of a young chimpanzee, is shot with the right measures of care and carnage: war sequences should always be this bewildering, especially when the soldiers are children. Quiet moments of tension end with bursts of surprise and you realize that Matt Reeves (slipping holdovers from his measured horror film, Let Me In) has snuck jump-scares in a movie that’s simply supposed to barrage.
Dawn’s real elegance lies in how nobly it treats its simian characters and the massive metaphor that keeps the film heart ticking. The film begins and ends with tight shots of Andy Serkis’ eyes: this is a film about watching. We watch in recognition as apes learn and love, recoil when they wound each other, cry out for their children. If the human characters suffer as they’re stuffed into types and trite dialogue (more Gary Oldman! I cry), it’s because the film has already decided that it is about the apes. We watch Mr. Serkis’ chimpanzee Caesar with half an eye trained on Shakespeare, waiting for ego and betrayal and power to play out (as they do) in the film’s narrative. Again, Mr. Serkis must be praised for wrenching countries of humanity from digital rendering. We respond to the performance because of the actor, through the foreign nation of technology, has achieved humanity. We respond to the character, even if he’s an ape and we’re not, because of this humanity. We watch apes wrestle and we’re seeing what humanity’s been doing forever.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a glorious mess. It juggles. It throws out massive ideas, thinks about think-piecing them, and hides behind an explosion. It is not afraid to look back immediately (to Rise, because, you know, James Franco) and historically (you cannot put apes on screen and not conjure the cool power of Kubrick. Michael Giacchino, as talented a score-maker as they come, hints and winks all over Ligeti’s monolith music.) It exists as part of something, both a bigger story and dependable brand, but revels in its moments of biting back. It’s a lot like an intelligent ape, ready to ponder and wonder but fully capable of wrenching into wrestling and screaming.
Intelligent apes are, after all, human beings. And maybe the more we watch movies about apes, the more we watch movies about humanity. Maybe that’s what They Might Be Giants meant, when they split a crowd of jumping human beings. Maybe it was just awesome. I was an ape. I shouted. I did not spill my beer.
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