Saturday, July 12, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Et Tu, Caesar?
Fixing the Dam, Dirty Apes!

Screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and director Rupert Wyatt did such a fine job of starting from scratch with the "Planet of the Apes" concept—throwing out the whole in media res concept and the "Big Surprise" (which may be the least-kept movie secret since "Rosebud")—and reverse-engineering it in a much more clever way than the original pentalogy did that my "ape-etite" was whetted for what would come next—the inevitable sequel to the very fore-shadowing Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

That sequel is now out.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (directed by Matt Reeves of Cloverfield and Let Me In) takes place more than ten years after the events of Rise..., and the sentient ape Caesar (Andy Serkis, carrying the movie, frankly) and his band of laboratory escapees are living in the Mt. Tamalpais forest, north of San Francisco. They have engineered the trees for easy transport and built a rudimentary ape-city in the wild, tamed wild horses and are hunting reindeer for food. The apes are thriving under Caesar's leadership—more of them are talking, but mostly communicating through sign-language, and there are rudimentary signs of culture—warrior-paint, schools, and the beginnings of what will eventually be (if we're going by the old timeline) the Sacred Scrolls of The Lawgiver.
Humans aren't doing so well. Most of the world's population has been wiped out by the so-called "simian flu," a biological creation of the same lab that was experimenting on Caesar and his fellow inmates (we saw hints of this in the tail-end of Rise...). Now there are pockets of humans immune to the flu spread throughout the world, trying to make do. One of those pockets is in San Francisco, but they've started to make forays out of the spaces downtown to see if they can get to the nearby hydro-electric dam (the O'Shaughnessy?) because they're starting to run out of diesel fuel for the generators.  

Looking for relevance, kids? There it is.  
The orangutan's name is Maurice (in-joke)
So, to keep the trolley-cars running (I'm joking, they're way beyond caring about the trolley cars), a team of Franciscans (led by Jason Clarke, who, try as he might, does not make his role interesting, and Keri Russell, as a physician, probably not necessary in an exploratory sortee to find a dam) set out to see what would be needed to get the turbines spinning again. They meet some apes—the first meeting in ten years (according to Caesar) and it ends up with one young ape being shot, Caesar going slightly ape-shit and running them out of the forest.

Not an auspicious start to good relations, and things escalate, but less because of the apes and humans not getting along, so much as internal struggles, as both groups having members going rogue and creating problems for everybody. The plot is essentially the same as Battle for the Planet of the Apes—devastated Earth/sequestered societies/rogue agents on both sides/somebody gets killed. But, Dawn does it so much better, and is helped immeasurably by the acting of the ape-actors, and manages to make the idea visually compelling, while the scope of the thing is concise and compact. 
There's something you don't see every day, Chauncey...
While unquestionably better than Battle..., its source, one can't say that it is better than its predecessor. Rise... was ingenious in its way of starting over the story and there was something powerful in its "hero's journey" following an ape-Spartacus. Trouble is, the hero's journey is usually followed by a less-than-stellar performance as a leader (think King Arthur, or Paul Atreides in "Dune"), and Caesar's reign has that same sense of lost potential for all the in-fighting going on. In fact, Dawn... moves out of the Spartacusian into the Shakespearean (and perhaps to its detriment). It's a tale of two cities, each with a leader of responsible parentage, with an Iago at his side to make matters worse, and the film cross-cuts from one to the other, in case one misses the point. There are times that the movie feels less organic, less surprising, and more of a construct than Rise..., and that is its main failing, aside from The Big Set-Piece (featuring a Big Set) that seems bound to end every movie that costs more than $10 million...and a rather convenient reading of Ape-Law over which even Dr. Zaius would raise an eyebrow—if he COULD raise an eyebrow through all that make-up.

Still, it's good.  Not as good as Rise... but certainly in the same orbit as the first "Planet of the Apes" movie, if not exactly creating the kinds of surprises that both of those films offered. That may be damning the dirty apes, but with high praise.

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