Mark Reviews Movies

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Matt Reeves

Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer, Jon Eyez, Enrique Murciano, Doc Shaw

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language)

Running Time: 2:10

Release Date: 7/11/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 10, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens with the camera pulling away from the eyes of one character, and as more of his face takes up the frame, we can spot a resilience of spirit—the determination of one who knows his place in the world and is willing to fight or even die to maintain it. The film ends with the same shot in reverse, and as the camera gets closer to those previously steely eyes, we are examining a much sadder face—a wiser face that knows his place and the place of those he leads has forever changed. The old ways have died; very different, very uncertain ones lie ahead.

These shots—especially as a pair, used as bookends to denote a massive shift in a character and the world in which he/she lives—are not unique unto themselves. What makes them special here is that we are not looking at a living, breathing human being—an actor who can use whatever tricks he possesses to present a character.

We are looking at a computer-generated ape. There are two obvious and major hurdles to overcome here. First, we have to believe this ape is an actual presence and not just a trick of programming. Second, we must believe this creature is not just an ape but a character with sentience, emotions, and a psychological background that defines his experience and the way he perceives the world.

In this film's predecessor Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the portrayal of the chief chimpanzee showed that both of these are possible. The sequel, though, takes those possibilities to new lengths of technological expertise and new depths of creating facsimiles of reality that can pass off as the genuine article. Over the past 30 years of computer-assisted visual effects, we've been noting mile markers and landmarks of this technology (assessing and wondering at how photorealistic the effects are, how well they blend in with physical elements, the imagination of design and execution, etc.). With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it has reached another benchmark.

Much of the story focuses on the apes, and much of the film's success rests on them being convincing as more than effects. They must be characters as important as—if not more important than—their human counterparts. The trick, as in the first film, is a technique that has been dubbed "performance capture," in which an actor gives a performance—on set or in a separate room—and effects artists translate that performance to a digital character.

The technique is so convincing here that there are moments that we are certain we are watching a genuine, physical presence on screen. No mask, though, could have the elasticity necessary to convey the emotions in this film; no animatronic could contain the moving parts required to get the nuances of the faces on display here.

The result is that the film can give us not just one ape but an entire community of primates. Each of them has an identifiable personality, a way of thinking about his/her place in the world, and a theory for the best mode of how society should operate. Director Matt Reeves captures them in close-ups—contemplating decisions that will have long-lasting effects on their way of life, treasuring the birth of a new son, determining whether or not the human intruder in their midst is worthy of trust, and having a tense face-to-face stand-off after coming to blows.

What we're really observing is the operation of a civilization through these remarkably rendered apes. They were indirectly the cause of and have survived the fall of humankind after a simian flu spread across the globe. They have made homes in a forest outside San Francisco, amidst the desolate remnants of humanity (The whole thing is introduced by a dissonant, primal chant that is the eerie highlight of Michael Giacchino's wide-ranging score).

They communicate via sign language and short bursts of English, speaking like succinct philosophers who have not quite mastered the use of verbs. Their rules are simple: "Ape not kill ape," and "Together ape strong." There are musings about humans, and Caesar (Andy Serkis), their leader who grew up with a human as a surrogate father, grows melancholy when he reflects on how the previous stewards of the world brought about their own demise.

Their society is turned on its head when a group of humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and trying to restart a hydroelectric dam, stumbles across the apes. Back in a fortress of a city where a few hundred humans have started their own new society, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the city's leader, orders that the survivors organize the nearby stockpile of weapons to prepare for war—should it come to that.

The screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback is surprisingly wise about the toll of fear upon a society. Both of these communities are anxious about the existence of the other. The assumption of many is that an external force (the humans for the apes and vice versa) will be the death knell of a civilization, but here we see how that very fear of "the other" sows seeds of suspicion within the society that are ultimately its undoing. Caesar simply wants the apes and human to remain segregated to their respective places, but Malcolm is convinced there can be some mutual understanding and at least temporary harmony.

As Caesar remembers that not all humans are bad, Koba (Toby Kebbell), an ape purist of sorts, begins a campaign of dissent. The humans' preparation for battle is perceived as a sign of aggression, and for some reason, it never occurs to anyone that an ape capable of riding a horse might be able to figure out how to use an assault rifle.

As one would expect, it leads to a massive, expertly staged battle that would be silly (the sight of an ape wielding two automatic weapons while riding a horse) if it weren't so tragically avoidable. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is undoubtedly a splendid technical achievement in visual effects, but its most significant accomplishment is not one of sophistication. It's far more elemental: We believe in these apes enough to understand and discuss them, their hopes, and their plight in human terms.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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