Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (2014) Is Genre At Its Most Important

Division between background and culture. Belief in the ability to overcome such division. The myth of the known other.  Our lesser selves, desperate for simple answers. The allure of technological solutions at the cost of fellow beings. Future generations physically and philosophically hanging in the balance. An abyss that threatens all when gravity becomes far too much to withstand.  We see this on every news source, every third or fourth tweet, hear about it through friends and family. A seemingly endless wave of hate, coupled with escalation by way of ever advancing death machines. These are at the heart of this weekend's big theatrical release, and I am still reeling from its effects.

Time for a big admission: Despite the surprise love many have for Rupert Wyatt's Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011), I still find it to be a competent, but often hobbled first entry in this new generation of installments to the classic franchise. While it does so much to remove the distaste experienced while viewing the much lesser Tim Burton retelling of 2001, it often feels constructed by committee, and suffers from some of the more egregious cases of fan pandering imaginable. The shining success of Rise, comes from the character work, especially in Andy Serkis's portrayal of future ape icon, Caesar. Watching him grow from lab chimp, to family member, to leader of a simian revolution was a marked improvement. And one that connected well enough to start the tale from a perfectly understandable place of kinship between hyper-intelligent apes, and the humankind which will inevitably tilt over in monkey favor. Gripes of annoying wall to wall references aside, Rise remains a surprising prequel with enough dramatic groundwork for an even greater story.

Enter Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.

Ten years after the events of Rise, Caesar and his surviving society of apes have now nestled deep into the woods overlooking San Francisco, and have created a functioning civilization far from what remains of humanity after the so-called "Simian Flu"(the human-made ALZ-113) all but wipes them out completely. Catching up with Caesar and his people, we are introduced to them during a hunting party, seeking food when it becomes clear that his leadership has become a foundation upon which all apes could co-exist. "Ape Not Kill Ape" In fact, when Caesar is asked about his feelings on his human upbringing, he claims to miss them from time to time, but feels that they are but a memory. Humans have become a footnote in their history. That is, until Caesar's son, Blue Eyes and his friend Ash (son of the first film's Rocket) are found by a small group of humans near the foot of their mountain. A shot rings out, and certainty is blasted away, as it comes to light that the remaining survivors of the Simian Flu apocalypse are in fact living within the ruins of the city, armed, and afraid.

Led by a once family man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the remnants of SF humans are tattered, strained, and desperate. Low on gas powered energy, and portable tech, Dreyfus and company seek to reach the local dam in the hills in hopes of making contact with any remaining human outposts. Naturally, the ape society is situated perfectly between these two points of life. The mentioned gunfire comes from the hand of Carver(Kirk Acevedo), one of many ready to draw a gun at what he sees to be the source of his life's misery. He is not alone, as we learn that many in the human compound, including Dreyfus, see apes as the very cause of all that has befallen humankind. A shared lack of faith leads some toward a violent resolution should the apes not wish for human intervention within their young world in the mountains. Not all in the initial group encounter are as terrified of the almost speech-capable ape society. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and a few others see the apes as special, and likely capable of reason. So when Caesar sees reason to quell the tension among his own, the sentiment of fear lives on in the form of Koba, a bonobo, who in the first film displayed scars of years of mistreatment at the hands of human scientists. It is in this ingrained tension between both species that drives Dawn toward something far more prescient than a mere AVATAR-esque tale of moral oversimplification.

The addition of Matt Reeves into the Apes fold, is an inspired, and proven choice here as his work with a script by Rise's Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (rewrites by Mark Bomback) harkens to the best moments from the original, with a sense of clarity that is deeply modern and affecting. The initial half hour is extraordinarily unlike typical blockbuster fare, and is so patient with character work, that it becomes far more exciting to know where each one is coming from by merely observing mannerisms. Confident mastery of visuals, performance, score (Michael Giacchino at his understated best)and an incredible sense of dread seeps through every pore of the setup, making it one of the more distressingly beautiful ones ever executed. We fully know who everyone is, we know the stakes, and we know..that none of this can end well.

As hinted at, Dawn also takes an almost Dark Knight route and surpasses it, in that it never lets either side off the hook. For all of Caesar's passion for understanding between ape and human, there is much for him to still learn as apes like Koba cannot see past humanity's terrible tendencies. And for Malcolm and his family, a need to see their faith through whereas Dreyfus and Carver see only a threat. Paradoxes inherent in both camps, only made worse by the revelation that the human compound is carrying within it an armory capable of all out war. The trust of an open hand versus the swift justice of an automatic rifle. The film is far more concerned with the nature of humankind versus its own fears. It even goes so far as to explore what happens when the words of peace can be reappropriated in the name of conflict. How easily we forget. And how easily we can so easily write off the other in the name of returning to a life lived in blissful ignorance of others. As if that ever guaranteed lasting inner peace. Much like how superhero works like X-Men attempt to evoke mental imagery of classic schisms such as those between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, we finally have a big budget film willing to more clearly explore the allure of violent retribution over a long road to peace.

A push button solution. A trigger for happiness.

We can talk here about how impressively constructed a great deal of this really is. How magnificent the imagery plunges its ways into the mind long after viewing the film. How astounding the apes are, and how beautiful their fur reacts to natural phenomenon. How both Andy Serkis and Tony Kebbell(Koba), with the help of WETA, and various artists convey the best and worst in us in ways that even most human acting fails to encompass. How our kids are often trapped,and occasionally cursed by the prejudices and fears of our parents. How the inevitable battle between human and ape is the stuff of nightmares. How the film offers up the best parable for conflicts that are happening miles away from us as media outlets often take merely one side, never considering that both to all sides truly want similar things. This is a blockbuster with a greater deal on its mind than most, and it expresses them with conviction and clarity we simply don't get in many places outside of literature.

It has been years since a studio release did this to me, and I cannot wait to experience it again. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, is that rare example of what big genre film is capable of being. It is a modern allegory of often shattering impact, and I cannot recommend it more.

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