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Entries in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes [2014] (1)

Sunday
Jul202014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Curious Bore

I had zero interest in seeing 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It smelled of movie movie studio property-trolling and an excuse to show off the latest CGI technology in another dumb summer blockbuster. Turns out the joke was on me, and Rise made my list of that year's best films.

Similarly, I had little enthusiasm for Matt Reeves' follow-up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Rise, in my opinion, was a solid Elseworlds-style prequel to the 1968 Charlton Heston classic, and did not, in fact, need a sequel. However, recalling the wonderful surprises director Rupert Wyatt and returning screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver served up last time, I held out a little hope that Dawn would be, at worst, worth seeing and, at best, the smartest possible version of its armed-ape revolution premise.

No such luck on either front, sadly. Dawn is a two-hour-and-ten-minute time suck that would, I imagine, have garnered no attention at all from moviegoers or critics were it not for WETA's continued innovations in motion-capture technology--as aided by Millennial Lon Chaney, Andy Serkis. In amping up production values, the filmmakers have neglected the two real keys to Rise's success: heart and brains.

Ten years ago, a small army of intelligent primates escaped the lab that had experimented on them for years. They attacked the Golden Gate Bridge before retreating into the woods outside San Francisco. This coincided with the release of a super-virus that, in a few short years, wiped out hundreds of millions of people and was nicknamed "The Simian Flu". A decade on, the apes' population has exploded, with compassionate leader Caesar (Serkis) building an Endor-like Utopia, while the few remaining humans cling to dwindling food, gas, and energy.

The apes are content to let the humans die off, and the humans are unaware that there is now a tribe of speaking, weapons-wielding animals living a few miles down the road. The humans are led by the conveniently obsessed Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) who (like an alarmingly large number of his crew) is so thick as to not take the intricacies of this new threat seriously until there are literally chimps on horseback charging his fortress, double-fisting machine guns. Fortunately, his best friend is a scientist named Malcom (Jason Clarke), who adheres so closely to the Bro Code that he looks past Dreyfus' genocidal tendencies, always giving him the benefit of the doubt. Malcom becomes an ambassador to the apes, and tries to make everyone get along.

(I can only imagine the mental gymnastics Malcom must put himself through every day. How difficult must it be to trust someone who witnesses first-hand a garrison of apes making a peace offering (in English) and then repeatedly dismisses them as just being animas?)

Anyway, if you've seen The Walking Dead (or any post-apocalyptic TV show/movie about rag-tag survivors), Dawn has absolutely nothing to offer beyond pretty pictures. I mention The Walking Dead specifically in reference to the show's most recent seasons, in which the leader of the noble survivors tries to convince the megalomaniacal head of an armed-and-paranoid camp that everyone can co-exist peacefully. A television series can get away with bouncing from one compound to another because its storylines are spread out over the course of a whole season. In Dawn, we skip from tree village to San Franciscan compound and back again and back again and back again--with a brief sojourn in James Franco's house, but without a hint that anything besides the inevitable CGI showdown is on the horizon.

The writers stack the movie with characters but limit characterization to genre clichés--a decision they rose so far above in Rise as to invite the assumption that both films were created by wholly different teams. Just as Michael Bay's Transformers pictures are often (and rightly) criticized for being stuffed with stuff but devoid of substance, so, too, does Dawn of the Planet of the Apes feel like layers of cheap padding on a cold cement floor.

The actors show up for work, but they're given little to do beyond read comic books to orangutans and look on wistfully during speeches about the insanity of mutually assured destruction. Their ape counterparts, while impressively expressive, are similarly engaged in a plot as old as man's quest to walk upright: one of Caesar's lieutenants betrays him, staging a false-flag assassination attempt that leaves the apes' pacifist leader incapacitated. It doesn't help that I didn't buy Caesar's death for a second,* but it does make me wonder if Reeves and company expected anyone to. If not, why bother?

All this lack of originality might have been easier to stomach had the filmmakers simply gotten on with it. Instead, the movie's a slog, an animated brand spectacle that exists because it's a tent pole and, by definition, doesn't necessarily have to be entertaining.** The movie ends with a closeup on Caesar's scowling mug that mirrors the film's opening (artsy!); it also perfectly captured my own face when I realized I'd sat through a rickety bridge leading to an even sillier, emptier war movie in 2015's Cash-in of the Planet of the Apes.

The charm and discovery Rise of the Planet of the Apes lay in the fact that most of the movie downplayed the inevitability of its title. Audiences knew that mankind would be screwed eventually, but the filmmakers drew us into a dramatic and exciting world that worked as relevant sci-fi on its own merits--regardless of franchise pedigree. That Dawn ends with its human and ape factions more or less exactly where they began the film (separated by woods and awaiting war) is a sad reminder that we're just collectively marching uphill to Victorian-English-speaking apes arguing over whether Charlton Heston is smart enough to live. In continuity, that storyline is thousands of years in the future. At this rate, Reeves and company will succeed in making us feel each and every one of them.

Note: For me, the film's single visual triumph may have been accidental. There's a shot during the climactic battle in which apes scramble up tilted scaffolding while being pelted with obstacles from above. It's a fun homage to Donkey Kong and a reminder of better things to do than watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

*For a similarly clumsy handling of this device, check out another Gary Oldman picture, The Dark Knight.

**See also The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.