Tuesday, July 29, 2014

'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' (2014) directed by Matt Reeves


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is indisputably the smartest film in cinema history that features a chimpanzee wielding two assault rifles (while jumping a horse over a burning car in slow motion).  There's something quietly bonkers about a series of films that sincerely explores the idea of humanity being conquered by a race of super-intelligent apes - let alone one where the narrative focus is on the apes.  

Nobody (least of all me) expected 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, to be any good.  As it rolled down the blockbuster production line everyone assumed that it was just another tired old Hollywood reboot, not to mention that it was directed by someone whose prior experience was on Hollyoaks.  Yet, on release you could practically hear gasps emanating from cinemas up and down the land as critics and audiences realised: "whoa, this is great!".  From the stunning ape CG (earning a commendation from PETA for never using real animals), to the touching performance of John Lithgow to the jaw-droppingly effective scene where an ape first speaks it came together beautifully.

That film ended with a group of smart apes led by genius ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) vanishing into a California redwood forest. Meanwhile a deadly flu has been inadvertently released, which spreads worldwide over the credits.  Dawn picks up ten years later.  The virus has wiped out 99.8% of the human race, leaving a desperate band of human survivors eking out a life in urban ruins.  Meanwhile, free from humans bothering them, Caesar's apes are prospering in a commune atop a former hydroelectric dam.

Koba is an ape of action.
Ape life seems happy enough under Caesar's reign, where the only commandment "ape shall never kill ape" holds a mutually supportive society together.  Wielding spears they hop from tree to tree, hunting deer, while teacher apes instruct the young in language and thinking.  It's an idyllic life - but one soon to be disrupted.  The humans, under the command of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) need power, the only remaining source being the dam on which the apes live.  

And so the stage is set for war.  Despite the best efforts of Caesar and ape-sympathetic human Malcolm (Jason Clarke), both species become slowly more antagonistic until everything erupts in a full on ape vs human maelstrom.  Much of this is due to the machinations of Koba, an ape with a big chip on his hairy shoulder.  He bears the scars of animal testing and, with a grudge against all humans, kicks off a coup, seizing control of the ape army and leading the apes to war.

This is all utterly ridiculous, yet the immaculate CGI work of the apes means it's next to impossible not to take this seriously.  Andy Serkis and the crack team of animators at WETA Digital are at the bleeding edge of digital performances, making Caesar both effortlessly realistic and smothered in big heaving dollops of empathy.  The film opens and closes with a tight close-up of Caesar's eyes, burning with intelligence and understanding. From minute one we're on side and the film doesn't disappoint.

It is hard to not want to see a movie with a shotgun wielding superintelligent ape in it.
Every moment we spend with the apes is well spent.  Aside from being a technical marvel, they behave precisely like you'd imagine very intelligent animals to - not quite human, but not quite animal either.  The film is refreshingly happy to stick to subtitled sign language, meaning the first 15 minutes or so is a brilliantly scored, dialogue free sequence where we watch the apes hunt.  In a clever touch, Michael Giacchino's score (which has excellently pun-tastic song titles) quotes Gy├Ârgy Ligeti's Requiem, famously used in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey - another film about evolved apes learning to use tools.

Frankly I would have been happy watching the apes potter about for an hour or two, but the humans have to stick their big ugly noses into proceedings.  It's here that the quality takes a bit of a dip.  Quite simply, compared to the apes the humans are dull, underwritten and not particularly well acted.  There's a TV movieish quality to their scenes that even Gary Oldman can't quite save.  Adding to this is a troubling disregard for every woman in the film - the hero's wife is supposedly a doctor, though she gets a derisory amount of things to do and remains a cipher through much of the movie (though, to be fair the lady apes get the same treatment).

We're drumming our fingers in annoyance during these human bits, desperate to get back to the far more interesting inter-ape conflict.  It's worth it, Koba and Caesar's battle to lead the nascent ape rulers proves once and for all that if you let an infinite number of monkeys try long enough they actually do produce something vaguely Shakespearian.

This is a story of revolution, and in an Animal Farmish twist the two competing apes have clear parallels in Soviet history.  Koba,named for one of the aliases of Joseph Stalin, is consumed by the desire to purge the earth of both the humans, who he sees as ideologically incompatible with apekind and dissenters within his own ranks. 

Caesar appears to be more of a representative of Vladimir Lenin, the brains behind the original push change.  Caesar is a bourgeois chimpanzee, growing up in cosy middle-class security with a James Franco that loves him dearly, an upbringing that mirrors the wealthy upbringing of Lenin.  This leads to suspicion from within the ape ranks that perhaps Caesar is too sympathetic to humans - leading to the ape power struggle.  Confusingly there's also a bit of Jesus Christ in Caesar, the ape framed with religious reverence and 'resurrecting' after three days and also, obviously, Julius Caesar.

Gaze into the eyes of the new gods.
This knot of symbols and references is, to be charitable, a little confusing to unpick.  Dawn is clearly pregnant with meaning, but this initial promise eventually dissolves away in a blur of somewhat silly (but well shot) action sequences featuring apes with machine guns, apes in tanks and ape prison camps.  

Dawn never dips below eminently watchable, the ape-only sequences are fantastic cinema and Serkis gives a masterclass in digital performance.  But it never comes together as well as Rise, a far more streamlined and consistent piece of cinema.  For all the bombastic drama of Dawn, by the final sequences the apes are in much the same place as they were at the end of the last film, poised to take over the world while humanity sticks around like a bad fart, the apes patiently waiting for it to waft away into the breeze.  

This stalling for time makes the film narratively inconsequential.  What is the worth of a film about revolution that ends in the same place it starts?  Koba was right. The humans had their chance and screwed up everything.  Compromise is pointless, it's in humanity's nature to torture, exploit and lie.  They deserve to be mercilessly wiped out and an ape utopia blossom from the ashes.  

What we actually get is less a Planet of the Apes and more a San Francisco Bay Area of the Apes, and that's just not good enough.

Down with the bourgeois, liberal Caesar! Viva Koba! 

★★★

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