Monday, 6 April 2015

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Directed by Matt Reeves; Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman

Rating: 4/5

As an unashamed fan of the original Planet of the Apes films (which I once picked up for under a fiver), I am more than happy to enjoy this Sequel to the Reboot of the Remake of the Planet of the Apes. What’s been delivered is another entertaining film; almost, but not quite the equal of its predecessor, with a decent story and characters, and special effects at the top of their game.

This is the eighth film in a franchise rich with possibilities, which has always reflected the concerns of society, from nuclear war, slavery and segregation in the 1960s and 70s, to the 21st Century concerns of animal testing, genetic engineering, global pandemics and our relationship with the environment, always with the chilling edge that comes from displacing humanity from its comfortable position as the planet’s dominant species.

As a quasi-prequel to the first Planet of the Apes (1968), we get to see this process in action as we return to the titular planet (spoiler: it’s Earth!) some years after the aforementioned pandemic which appeared as the end sequence of Rise, killing 90% of the human population. With no humans seen for some time, the thought in the now thriving society led by ape liberator Caesar is that the last survivors have perished, but a chance encounter on a hunting expedition reveals the truth.

An expedition of humans has ventured deep into ape territory with the intention of restarting a hydroelectric dam to restore power to the ruins of San Francisco. With a deep mistrust of humans at the very core of ape doctrine, the plan becomes a tense diplomatic mission as the humans and apes negotiate to avoid another brutal conflict and needless loss of life.

Caesar is played by master of motion capture Andy Serkis and amazingly, the motion capture was largely filmed on location in the forests of Vancouver, the CGI seamlessly integrated with live action. As a character, Caesar is rare among apes in that he was raised by a human and can see the good in them.

Our human hero is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a survivalist and engineer, who is in charge of the expedition, but is not much of a leader. Neither is he a diplomat, but he is level headed enough to develop a relationship with Caesar, with whom they share a common goal which transcends the interspecies squabble – each has a family they would do anything to protect.

The real leader of the humans is back in San Francisco: the militaristic but pragmatic Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) who has already lost his family (he swipes through their pictures on a prominently placed iPad – in shops now!) and has little desire to understand or relate to the apes.

The previous director Rupert Wyatt is replaced here by Matt Reeves, who gave us found footage monster movie Cloverfield, where the tantalising excitement of citywide destruction just off-screen was undermined by the idiotic decisions made by the protagonists. There are shades of this frustrating characterisation here with one member of Malcolm’s team, Carver.

He is nothing more than a catalyst; right from the opening scene, where he shoots first and thinks later, wounding Caesar’s son Blue Eyes in the process, everything about him screams “I’m the arsehole who’s constantly going to jeopardise this fragile diplomacy” – which is barely saved from the brink of collapse more than once before the inevitable final showdown.

Koba fills this role for the apes, but he is a stronger character and an established personal rival of Caesar, who tries to corrupt the younger apes, including Cesar’s impressionable young son Blue Eyes.

For fans of the older films, there are plenty of nods to the continuity. Caesar’s family, his wife Cornelia and son Blue Eyes, call to mind Roddy McDowell’s ape scientist Cornelius, and the nickname ‘Bright Eyes’ given to Charlton Heston’s astronaut Taylor in the original. This is not quite the same Caesar as in Conquest and Battle, both of which are mined again for thematic material, but like the reboot of Star Trek (2011), the time-travel elements of the story are flexible enough to allow multiple canonical continuities, the seeds of which were being sown as early as Escape, and ultimately enabled the hope for reconciliation at the end of Battle.

We also remember the dramatic “No!” – The first words spoken by an ape in both Conquest and Rise, when Caesar flexes his vocal chords to deliver an ultimatum to the humans, but the apes here tend to converse in sign language amongst themselves. Perhaps they see spoken language as a hallmark of humanity, but they prefer to save their English skills to dramatically intimidate humans, reminding them that they share a level of intelligence which apes may even have surpassed with their sense of community. While the apes have built a new society from the ground up, the surviving humans continue to scavenge in the ruins of their decaying civilisation, relying on old technology.

There’s a great scene about halfway through the film. Power is restored to an old petrol station in the woods, and as it flickers into life a song plays from a stereo: The Weight by The Band, a song which is both religious allegory and an exploration of the music which flows from the American South. Its thematic relevance extends to include references to Judgement Day and the American civil rights movement.

Hearing recorded music and seeing artificial light, symbolic of humanity’s legacy, offers a spot of hope, which is inevitably undercut by the melancholy of the world lost and the inevitability of an impending finale, which I’m going to talk about now, so stop reading to avoid spoilers. Hey, I've already told you that they managed to get the power back on so Gary Oldman can charge his iPad.

The audience wants a fight, we've paid to see apes with machine guns, and a fight is what we get, courtesy of the hot headed Koba and unrelenting Dreyfus. Lamentably although hell inevitably breaks loose, credibility is stretched. The previously pacifist apes are far too good at using the machine guns they have only recently stolen from the humans.

We know the apes have both intelligence and physical strength on their side, but it’s hard to explain hold their own so well against the trained human guards. Ultimately, they overwhelm the humans with sheer numbers, when they might have concocted a strategic assault using some kind of unique and established ape advantage, such as their non verbal communication, or climbing ability.

Still, all things considered, it’s an entertaining film, but really not for those who don't subscribe to the sub-genre of ‘ape films’.

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