Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes / **** (PG-13)

Caesar: Andy Serkis
Malcolm: Jason Clarke
Dreyfuss: Gary Oldman
Ellie: Kari Russell
Koba: Toby Kebbell
Alexander: Kodi Smit-McPhee
Carver: Kirk Acevedo
Blue Eyes: Nick Thurston

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Mark Bomback and Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver. Based on characters created by Jaffa & Silver and inspired by the novel “Le Planéte des Singes” by Pierre Boulle. Running time: 130 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief strong language).

For the past two weeks we’ve watched as the Gaza Strip has once again blown up in conflict with innocents dying on both sides and both sides claiming the righteousness of their causes. I would not claim to know enough about either side of this never-ending conflict to judge whether anyone is right or not. I do believe that after a certain point the righteousness of such conflicts fades in comparison to the cost in human life. War is just war after a while. Is it just an inevitable aspect of the human existence? The new film “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, in the same tradition of the original series of films inspired by Pierre Buolle’s novel “Le Planéte des Singes”, argues that it may be the nature of any dominant species, be it man or ape.

Taking place ten years after the events of 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, this sci-fi actioner imagines the Earth after an apocalyptic virus has all but wiped out the human race. Apes have yet to take over the planet, but they have established a somewhat civilized existence under the leadership of Caesar in the redwood forest outside of San Francisco. The apes have carved out a place in the forest where they’ve built a society with hunters, security personnel, educators and even health providers. The apes, whose intelligence was enhanced to the equivalent of humans in the previous film, speak mostly in sign language (with subtitles provided to the audience), but when dramatic emphasis is necessary they can actually speak words aloud.

Director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) and his screenwriters chose to spend the first ten minutes of the movie immersed in the ape culture. We find that Caesar seems to have a little trouble connecting with his own son, Blue Eyes. There is almost a distance between Caesar and all the other apes. Perhaps this touches back on the first film’s questions of where Caesar’s place really is. A human reared him. He was born with his heightened intelligence, while that other apes were given their intelligence through chemicals administered by Caesar. Humans brutalized the other apes in experiments and captivity, while Caesar learned human love. Caesar misses the humans despite his position among the apes. They believe the humans to be gone until one day…

When a scouting party of humans stumbles upon the apes in their tranquil existence, it throws a wrench into the works. On the human side, the conflicting personalities are apparent from the start. In a small group lead by the compassionate Malcolm, not all the humans are able to contain their fear of the apes. The humans are painted in broad strokes. One seems to be a nervy jerk simply because one is required. It is the apes who are fully developed characters here. I suppose the archetypes work for the humans, because we know what alpha hotels we can be. The apes are more complicated.

Caesar has formed this ape society for a place that he can fit in, even though he doesn’t truly. He has founded it with the notion that apes are loyal to apes. They are a family, and many of the ape characters from the first film return here as fully loyal acolytes to Caesar’s philosophy. Koba, the scarred ape, is Caesar’s right hand man and protector. The Orangutan, Maurice, is Caesar’s conscience. All the apes follow Caesar unquestionably until the humans arrive. Koba worries that Caesar cares too much for the humans and will compromise ape safety because of his affection. The cracks form in the pacts of loyalty.

It turns out the there are many more humans than it seems at first. They need access to a dam in the ape territory to restore power to the city. A fuel shortage has forced them into desperate action. The leader of the humans in the city, Dreyfuss, is concerned that the apes will be a problem, but Malcolm convinces him to hold off on any action so that he might develop a treaty with the apes to gain access to the dam. It’s inconvenient that the nervy jerk is the only guy who knows enough about the dam to get it running.

What is remarkable about this movie is how the filmmakers are able to convey just how difficult it is to keep peace during a situation involving two groups who don’t know whether they can trust each other. Not only must the leaders consider the possible deceptions or ulterior motives of the other group, but also they must contain any dissenting factions within their own group. The story is expertly constructed to show Caesar’s and Malcolm’s struggle to do the right thing without betraying their own group or their own personal integrity.

When originally considering “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” for its theatrical release, I was concerned that the movie was too cerebral for what audiences were looking for from this franchise. “Dawn” seems to up the action level a considerable degree, yet it doesn’t pull back on its thematic elements. It functions as a model of the science fiction format, balancing its commentary on our modern day human existence with fantasy action sequences, working on both levels equally. The only problem is that its conclusion may not be what we’d like to hear. There may truly be no hope for humanity.

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