Monday, July 14, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Apes and Humans ~ A Lesson In Tribal Leadership

I never thought "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" was profound in any way.  I did, however, thought it was an interesting film as an attempt at reimagining a favorite franchise from my youth, I watched it with some anticipation.  However, I thought it was more of a CGI driven film and not much in the way of social commentary.  Its sequel "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," is something much more.  There is no monkey business involved in this film but a serious Science Fiction drama that plays archetypical characters together in a classical story of family, betrayal, and revolution.  In some ways, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" plays like a Greek tragedy.  

A decade has passed since the Apes ran into the Muir Woods and the Simian Flu has spread across the world.  As you recall, Will's (James Franco) jerk of a neighbor (David Hewlett), an airline pilot, spread the ALZ-113 virus across the world.  Caesar (Andy Serkis) is an older, wiser leader of the simian population.  He and Cornelia (Judy Greer) have a son who for being about 10 years seems to be more like an older teen.  His name is Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and he has all the insecurities of a human teen growing up in his father’s shadow.  Blue Eyes is a young prince, impetuous, a careless know-it-all who doesn't listen to his dad.

Many of the themes from the "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" play out in this film as well.  As in the first film, this film also starts with a hunt.  This time the hunters are the Apes and they are hunting a deer.  The Apes, led by Caesar herd the deer toward a cliff.  Blue Eyes doesn't wait as his father ordered and attacks too soon.  A giant brown bear attacks him and Koba (Toby Kebbell), the Ape his father freed from abusive testing, saves him.  This scene is important as we see the relationship between leader, his son, and a trusted lieutenant.  

“Dawn Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is different in that, although there is plenty of PG-13 type of violence, the film is centered on family.  One can see a sense of family on several different levels.  Caesar's nuclear family has a new addition, his wife Cornelia has a newborn chimpanzee, but she is weak.  Andy Serkis' facial features that emote through the digital effects are one of a caring husband fearing for his wife's health, and concern that his eldest son makes the correct decisions in his life.

Caesar and the various Apes he freed from the zoo and the Gen-Sys research lab have built a simple communal civilization.  Notice I didn't say primitive, because it isn't.  The Apes just don't need much, like electricity, and all the technology that comes with it.  They ride horses, and live with only one commandment, "Ape not kill Ape.”  Maurice the circus orangutan, who already knew sign language when he first met Caesar, teaches the other somewhat evolved apes and their young.  Most of the Apes have rudimentary speech skills, however, they all know sign language, and that is how Caesar communicates.  He uses his voice only when he wants to make a point.  

Good stories have conflicts that matter, and family does matters.  Not too far away in the woods, Blue Eyes and his friend Ash (son of Rocket, another of Caesar's lieutenants played by Larramie Doc Shaw) walk through the woods when they come across Carver (Kirk Acevedo).  Carver and Koba are similar in type as they are both loyal to their leaders, but they both have distrust and hate for each other's species.  Carver shoots on instinct and wounds Ash.  Behind him is a small group of humans led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his new wife, Ellie (Keri Russell), Malcolm's son Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Foster and Kemp.  From the trees, the apes descend, prepared to defend themselves and their land. Malcolm, the leader of the humans, deescalates the situation, however, Koba and Carver both wants revenge.  Caesar, shocks the humans when he roars, "don't come back!"

Malcolm and his group are from the city of San Francisco, and they need power.  There is a hydroelectric plant in the mountains now on the Ape's land.  The humans want to get to the plant and restart the power.  Historically, the scenario is similar to the takeover of American Indian land by white settlers.  In San Francisco, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) decides that if the apes won't let them have access to the hydroelectric plant, he and the citizens of the town will take it by force.  Malcolm promises that if Dreyfus gave him a chance, he would try again to negotiate with the Apes for access to the power plant.  In the meantime, Dreyfus orders the armory to prepare the weapons just in case war is inevitable.

Malcolm is able to convince Caesar that the humans mean no harm, and both of them negotiate in good faith.  Unknown to either Malcolm or Caesar, betrayal lurks in their own groups.  One condition that Caesar gives the humans is that they must submit to simian gun control laws.  Give up their weapons and Caesar with break them into pieces.  

Writer, producer, and director of “Felicity,” Matt Reeves balances the points of view of both races delicately and fairly.  Like Caesar, Malcolm too worries about his son, and his wife Ellie.  He also sees the advantage of a peace whether separate or not.  Ellie also shares this belief as demonstrated when she helps Cornelia by giving her some antibiotics to help her recover from her sickness.  Carver fears the Apes because as far as he is concerned they started the pandemic that killed most of the population -- except for small groups who are genetically immune, including the folks still alive in San Francisco,  Ellie reminds him that it was a manmade virus that caused all the deaths.  Koba, still angry for the pain he endured at the hands of man wants retribution.

Writers Mark Bomback ("The Wolverine," "Unstoppable"), and the husband and wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, take what was a respectful reimagining of a classic Science Fiction film and update it for a new technological society.  Also updated are our thoughts, not just on treating other human beings equally, but also in light of changing mindsets on human exceptionalism, our thoughts turn now on how we can better take care of the planet and the creatures that live on it with us.  Of course, the underlying message has always been that we should all get along.  Where “Rise of the Planet of the Apes" was more about rebellion and gaining freedom for the oppressed, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is more about mercy versus vengeance and which race is the more savage.  The first film contained the underlying message of greed and how messing with science without the necessary precautions can backfire, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is more about how both societies are blinded by their own prejudices.

Jason Clarke of "The Great Gatsby" and "Lawless" does a wonderful job as Malcolm.  He holds your attention and portrays that sense of honesty needed for this role.  Keri Russell ("Dark Skies,"  "We Were Soldiers") carries her part well as the medic, wife, and step-mom.  Kodi Smit-McPhee is no stranger to post-apocalyptic worlds.  He starred alongside Viggo Mortenson in 2009's "The Road.”  I felt for these human characters as much as I did for Caesar’s family.  Gary Oldman's Dreyfus character seem like a reasonable man, however, he too succumbs to his prejudices and ultimately fails his mission.  I have seen Kirk Acevedo playing this kind of shoot first, survival of the fitness kill or be killed attitude.  He does it very well, but now I think he may be typecast in theses hate filled, morally bankrupt roles.  

Honestly, the best actors were the ones who played nonhuman characters.  Andy Serkis deserves an Oscar for his part in this film.  Although an accomplished actor and now a director, his work as Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" films has made him the de facto consultant on all things motion capture.  For reasons that I am unaware of, or maybe technology took another leap in the last three years, but I feel the digital creatures in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” are superior to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”.  Toby Kebbell ("The East,” "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”) is excellent as Koba the vengeful ape who is ungrateful of what he has and is filled with hate.

Michael Giacchino's ("John Carter," "Lost") thoughtful score is both tender and at times grand.  As the first big battle scene of the film is approaching, strains of Jerry Goldsmith's original tribal theme could be heard.  Also of note was the celebration after getting the water plant working.  With power restored, the humans gather to listen to "The Weight" by the 60's group, The Band.  As I mentioned before, Applause to the visual effects folks, as I think WETA Digital did an impressively beautiful job of creating the Apes' hairy texture and facial features.  

Overall, I am very happy with this new sequel. As I said in the beginning of this review, I felt that both the story and the characters are comprised of many archetypal elements, however, the writers and director draw on those elements and craft them into a compelling narrative and visually spectacular images. In this film there is no moral ambiguity, there were no real shading of right and wrong, good verses bad, or mercy verses death, I knew which characters to root for whether they be Ape or Human.  "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" not only entertained me with its even pacing, but the story and the messages behind it left me sitting in my chair at the theater, with the lights coming on, and the credits rolling, thinking.  Thinking about how we as people treat each other, and how we as a race treat the planet, the environment, and all creatures on this planet. 

Movie Data

Genre: Action, Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Year: 2014
Staring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo 
Director: Matt Reeves
Producer(s): Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Writer: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Pierre Boulle (novel "La Plan├Ęte des Singes")
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Date: 7/11/2014

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