Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Human Make Good Movie: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

2016: a virus (dubbed “simian flu”) is transferred from apes to people, and signals the collapse of human civilization. Now, ten years later, only isolated pockets of survivors remain to comb through the overgrown wreckage of San Francisco, fighting to stay warm, get someone on the radio, and turn the lights back on. To the latter end, a group led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) ventures across the Golden Gate into Muir Woods, where a hydro dam might still be salvageable for power, and where – unfortunately for all involved – a generation of hyper-intelligent apes has begun to form a society led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), the chimpanzee whose marvelous mind was gifted to him in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The two fledgling cultures come to realize that their differences might be too profound to overcome, and the stage is set for monkeys to wield machine guns while riding bareback through pillars of flame. No, seriously.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’s comments on tolerance and war are heavy-handed, but they work because real wars are based on similarly idiotic happenstance. Misunderstanding forms the basis of the conflict in this film, and the film’s drama hits harder because of how realistic that idea actually is. The parallel character setups help communicate this too: the ape family unit mirrors the human one – Caesar and Malcolm are both fathers, shackled by their desire for peace – and both groups are threatened by warmongers motivated by anger, distrust and pain (Carver the human (Kirk Acevedo), who is digusted by the very idea of a talking ape, and Koba the bonobo (Toby Kebbell), whose mistreatment at the hands of human scientists fuels his hatred for all mankind). This divide is deeply ingrained – Caesar implores Koba to let Malcolm travel to the dam and do “his human work” so that they might be left alone again in peace; Koba trails a finger over each of his surgical scars in turn to show exactly what he thinks of the work humans do. (Of course, what Koba gets up to puts even the cruelest humans to shame, flouting the overtly-Orwellian “Ape not kill ape” commandment etched onto the stone blackboard in the monkey commune).

Jason Clarke in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The film creates a lush post-apocalyptia, reminding me powerfully of last year’s Playstation-exclusive masterwork, The Last of Us – all crumbling concrete reclaimed by vegetation, bustling city streets replaced by buzzing insects and floating pollen. The woods outside San Francisco are like a character unto themselves, the sentinel pines as rigid and intimidating as any human edifice, constantly slick with Pacific rain. I noticed these things because the film is slow, deliberately slow, and while I can’t say I disapprove (I’m a bit of a codger in that I like my cheese sharp and my SF dull) I can’t imagine the languid pace will go over well with most audiences. This does have the effect, however, of making the action tense and harrowing, because it contrasts so strongly with the moody glower of the dialogue scenes.

Jason Clarke is nondescript as the male lead – he's not offensive, but he's also not characterized very strongly, or given much to work with beyond some plain-jane expository dialogue. Like him or loathe him, at least James Franco brought some singular charm to his role as Caesar’s erstwhile “father” in Dawn’s predecessor. After the power is restored to the human colony there’s a small but resonant scene featuring Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the Frisco survivors’ elected leader. He turns away from the celebration and notices his iPad, which has just woken up from a long dormancy, and takes a solitary moment to peruse some family photos. His expression of mixed joy, remembrance, worry, and grief moves him to uncontrollable tears, and is twice as affecting as anything we get from White Guy Protagonist (but then, this is Gary Oldman, who seems to have made a career of turning two-a-penny supporting roles into mini-masterpieces). His Dreyfus is painted in subtler shades than you’d expect from the role, which I assumed would be more ape-hating tyrant than reasonable, impassioned leader of men.

Andy Serkis, of course, heavily-CGI’d as Caesar, turns in another career-making-performance-in-disguise. I would now be officially upset that he continues to go unrecognized both by the awards community and by Joe Moviegoer, except that the relatively-unknown status he currently enjoys allows him to turn in incredible mocap performances like this one without the stress and corruption of fame, and I can't complain about that. But his work in moving the craft of film into a new age of digital wonder deserves all the praise that can be piled upon it. His Caesar is a monumental display of collaboration between his emotional, conflicted portrayal of a being caught between two worlds and the digital architects who bring that character to vivid and convincing life.

The visual effects are truly remarkable here, and if not the primary draw, they’re at least worth the price of admission. Godzilla showed audiences what CGI in 2014 can achieve on a macro scale, and now Dawn is here to zoom in to the micro. The apes are one hundred percent convincing, even in close-up (the film is bookended with extreme close-ups on Caesar’s eyes), and their body language and behaviour is startlingly realistic (all credit to Serkis, Kebbell, and the rest of the motion-capture cast). It helps, too, that the live-action actors had actual actors to work with, and weren’t hamstrung by the need to emote with a green wall that the post-production team hadn’t rendered yet (as was the case with George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels and many CGI-heavy films to date). The result is an experience in which you’ll forget that the creatures before you aren’t real, and when you do remember, you’ll be bowled over by the subtlety and power of the illusion.

Gary Oldman in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The cinematography was noteworthy but not exceptional, though some shots were particularly effective: a steadicam shot of Malcolm evading apes through crumbling hallways, ducking into shadow as they pass; a 360-degree shot from the perspective of Koba as he sits astride a spinning tank barrel; and what I’ll call a “Jurassic Park shot”: a pan down from a terrifying threat looming in the rain (in this case, hundreds of apes swinging through the redwoods) to a car window, where we see humans huddling fearfully inside. In fact, Spielberg’s influence was apparent in other ways, too: I’ve just discovered a new fear of apes, which is good, because even when they’re not augmented by science-fiction brain cocktails, they are dangerous, powerful animals, made even more so by their nascent intelligence. Jaws (1975) is considered by many to be the first true “summer blockbuster”, and if there’s anything a studio like 20th Century Fox is going to take away from that, it’s that making an audience terrified of a misunderstood animal is the recipe for success. Was director Matt Reeves purposefully emulating this tried-and-true formula, or was it coincidence? It doesn’t matter to the end user, who will still feel a thrill of Spielbergian awe at the sight of the simian stronghold, imposing and beautiful in its primitive grandeur.

I'm hardly a Planet of the Apes scholar (and just in case you think that’s a joke: based on the sheer number of Planet works across several mediums, such an occupation is not out of the question) but I'm a little confused by the narrative chronology that's being set up here: if this is a prequel to the original Planet of the Apes (1968), what possible circumstances could lead from here to a human spaceship being launched from earth with no knowledge of the war between humans and apes? If Planet of the Apes is supposed to follow this film, Charlton Heston would have no excuse for being surprised at the sight of walking, talking simians. Dawn’s script attempts to cover this discrepancy by demonstrating that the survivors in Frisco cannot establish contact with anyone else, which might provide a window for Heston’s interstellar journey to take place (as far as the audience knows, the ape civilization is restricted to a section of Muir Woods, so other isolated pockets of humanity might not be aware of their existence). But then, even if the surviving humans holed up at, say, Cape Kennedy didn’t know anything about any simian uprising, why would they figure their best chance at survival would be to launch a crew into deep space, instead of establishing contact with anyone else who might be left on Earth? That’s a hell of a dice roll. I’m betting that, as is the case with too many prequels, the writers just kind of... forgot about that detail.

Another aside: There’s a reference to Jerry Goldsmith’s original Planet of the Apes score when Caesar and Co. make their first incursion into human territory, and the pizzicato strings and cheeky clarinet sounded wildly anachronistic, but not unwelcome. A simple whiff of that score, with all the late-60s brass of Star Trek: TOS, provided a fragrant bouquet of tone and character that I feel has been missing from recent film soundtracks. Too bad it only lasted about thirty seconds.

Dawn squeezes as much investment as can possibly be wrung out of a story whose ending we already know. The prequel format, and perhaps the lack of a strongly authorial director, is the only barrier to this film being considered among my favourites of the summer. X-Men: Days of Future Past is a more engaging watch – Dawn is a decidedly gloomy affair – but it still has emotional resonance and technical mastery to spare, and though 3D adds nothing whatsoever to the experience, you could more carelessly spend your box office dollar. For my part, I think anyone interested in witnessing the future of cinema firsthand owes it to themselves to see what these people have done, and I challenge any moviegoer to watch Serkis do his good work and fail to understand what “movie magic” means.

Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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