11 July 2014

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, Fox, 2014)


B+

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
2014, 130mins, 12
Director: Matt Reeves 
Writer (s): Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa 
Cast includes: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Toby Kebbell, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Judy Greer 
UK Release Date: 17th July 2014

There weren’t many level-headed insiders rooting for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” in 2011. A prequel to a now flagging sci-fi series, the film boasted a first-time director, wearisome production troubles and an unenviable August release date. For Twentieth Century Fox “Rise” represented an instance where limiting losses usurped turning a profit in their list of priorities. The rest is history. The movie opened to strong critical notices and healthy box-office, luring audiences in with the promise of quality over gimmicky pyrotechnics. As a result, its sequel, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” opens with a very different set of expectations; Fox hoping the project will round out the year as one of the studio’s bigger hits. Based on the standard of the final product they’re probably in luck. “Rise” surpassed its runtish pedigree through audience engagement and word of mouth - cinephiles were eager to share the delight of a surprise package with their kin - and the same should apply here. “Dawn” equals its predecessor across the board, building a fabulous apocalypse atop the dystopian promise of the last movie’s finale. The attention to character and theme has also been preserved, incoming director Matt Reeves (replacing the jettisoned Rupert Wyatt) continuing to evolve the art of performance capture with remarkable thespian contributions and visual wizardry.

Ten years have passed since the hyper-perceptive Caesar (Andy Serkis) liberated the apes of San Francisco, the intervening period catastrophic for humanity. Simian Flu has ravaged the globe, leaving only small pockets of survivors battling to maintain civilisation. Caesar and his vast family of Apes are unbothered, left to peacefully maintain their nurturing homestead amidst the vast forests running in tandem with the city. All is upended with the arrival of Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a human sent to convince Caesar to help him utilise a potential power source for the nearby populous. Caesar and Malcolm form a bond based around the cornerstones of trust and optimism, but others including vengeful ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) and pragmatic human Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) are less convinced by the prospect of unity, encouraging a burgeoning sense of animosity between the factions.

“Rise” was a revelation for a number of reasons, but chief amongst them was its phenomenal use of motion capture technology. The ensuing freedom for actors like Serkis to mimic and build personalities around the titular species provided the prequel with a soulfulness oft denied by CGI overload. The creatures felt real and their struggles skilfully communicated to an audience through impeccable performative flourishes and commitment. It would be untrue to state that Serkis is better in “Dawn” than “Rise” (although his complex and sympathetic work is certainly no lesser), but the standard of creature design and VFX is. The animals in the initial entry look primitive compared to what’s on offer in the sequel, a living, breathing and impossibly textured colony of photo-realistic simian characters.  A large part of the creative agenda is in the world-building, Reeves conjuring a nihilistic platform for the narrative, one not far removed from our approximation of possibility. Life continues for mankind, but it is an uncertain and troubled one. In the first film, the sun beat down on San Francisco as a constant, in “Dawn” the rain pours from overcast skies relentlessly; a mirror for diegetic circumstance it seems. Returning to issues of character, this heightened desire for expansion proves welcome, particularly in the construction of monkey politics. There are enough memorable and well realised faces in both camps to incur insular drama, but watching Caesar’s inner conflicts stoked by the rage of former-comrade Koba (depicted with heart-breaking pain by Toby Kebbell) proves deeply satisfying and unusually sophisticated for this time of year. It’s only been a week since the roars and whams of Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction” left me fatigued, a film that overtly favours innocuous digital spectacle over human interaction, with frustrating results. Here the CGI manages to emanate as much heart as flesh and blood, and I intend that as a hearty compliment.  

“Dawn” has a social conscience much like “Rise”. The “Apes” brand has always carried a weighty expectation for cerebral activity beneath the conceptual hoo-hah, the 2011 film using our cruelty toward other inhabitants of Earth to demonstrate man’s capacity for self-destruction. It wasn’t subtle, but there was true conviction. Once again the franchise is happy to parade its ideas with a certain heavy handedness, but “Dawn” supports a familiar degree of sincerity. Aside from exploring the exterior and interior pressures of tribal living, the picture also asserts a powerful and resonantly realised portrait of fear begetting more fear, of hate leading to poisoned minds. Even as Reeves amps up the action in the final third, “Dawn” stays character driven, with special focus applied to both Koba and Caesar. The film-maker arranges some startling and often artfully constructed shots to draw maximum purpose from his feature, including a haunting long-take with Kebbell’s embittered Ape atop a tank. Using the machine for murderous practise, the sequence wonderfully (and with rare delicacy) showcases the character’s corruption, inflicting pain using the very tools he adamantly opposes. Touches like that ensure we take things seriously, which based on the humourless veneer is exactly what Reeves and company want.

The human cast are solid, but as was the case last time, they feel bettered by their digitally cloaked peers.  Jason Clarke steps into the Franco void with minimal fuss, although his earnest family-man isn’t as interesting as the last movie’s well-intentioned but fatally overambitious scientist. Gary Oldman holds his end of the bargain reasonably, but only has a few choice moments to shine. Still, few actors working today can deliver either a monologue or twinge of lonely tragedy like the Brit. The screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (reprising their duties from 2011) organically works the ten years later angle through a parade of losses. It’s no surprise “Dawn” is such a severe work, every character is combatting profound personal sacrifice. The virus has decimated families, humans have eradicated Koba’s reasoning and Caesar even has to face the ghost (not literally, thankfully) of Franco’s likable but misguided mentor. New lives have begun in a darker period, this combination of raw past and uncertain future affording the piece an advanced narrative prowess and naturalism.


The in-jokes have been culled (no “damn, dirty ape” business here) and the scale enlarged, with a myriad of effective subplots papered around the central march of war.  Reeves has done a fine job with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” a gorgeously produced sequel, and the promise of an epic trilogy-closer is tantalising. Once again it’s the character work that has kept this otherwise outdated franchise stable, and for the second consecutive time ensured it remains at the forefront of a summer’s most dynamic programming. Nobody is doubting the credentials of these monkeys any longer. 

A Review  by Daniel Kelly, 2014


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