Human See, Monkey Movie
By Johnny Pomatto
In a summer that has given us almost exclusively forgettable, insulting sequels, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES has come to save the day. When the previous installment, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” arrived a few years ago, we were right to be wary. After all, the sci-fi masterpiece that was the original film had been desecrated by several enjoyable but increasingly silly sequels, and Tim Burton’s 2001 remake, one of Hollywood’s biggest misfires of the millennium. But “Rise” was a glorious origin story with obvious respect for its source material, without constantly referencing it with cutesy nods and imagery. Best of all, it introduced us to Caesar, played by Andy Serkis who proved more than ever with that role that motion capture could produce performances strong enough to make you forget you were watching computer animation. Caesar was just as real and engaging as the living, breathing movie stars, such as James Franco. Finally we were given a “Planet of the Apes” movie that wasn’t about a Charlton Heston stand in reacting to talking monkeys. Caesar was our protagonist and we were eager to follow him anywhere, even knowing full well that his actions would eventually lead to the downfall of mankind.
I’m happy to report that director Matt Reeves and the team behind DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES paid attention to what worked so well in the first film and have delivered an even better sequel. Serkis gets top billing here and deservedly so, as the apes are once again the stars of the film. Caesar and his ape community, (soon to be army), are living in the John Muir Woods above San Francisco 10 years after a plague has killed most of the world’s population. When a small group of human survivors, (including Jason Clarke and Keri Russell) stumble on the apes’ society in their efforts in finding an abandoned power plant, the apes are reminded that the human threat is not yet gone. As the apes’ leader, Caesar struggles with the decision to trust these humans who seem to have pure intentions, or listen to an Iago-esque ape that thinks it’s time to wipe out the rest of the human civilization while they’re weak and vulnerable.
My Shakespearian reference is quite deliberate. While I wouldn’t say that this script and story by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver is a masterpiece by any means, it is full of classical themes and storytelling that aren’t far removed from the Bard. After all, if we can make the “Hamlet” comparisons with something like “The Lion King,” then surely we can do the same here. And we have real weight given to the drama by the performances from the likes of Serkis, Toby Kebbell, and Judy Greer in some of the primary ape roles. These motion capture performances never feel like mere special effects. I was even occasionally able to spot the exact shape of Serkis’ face hidden behind Caesar’s scowl. There was very justified oscar buzz for Serkis’ performance when “Rise” came out in 2011, but I don’t think we’ll hear more of that this year. Its not because his performance isn’t just as riveting, but more because the supporting ape actors, who were trained by Serkis, are just as effective so it’s hard to see this film as more of an epic ensemble story.
I wish I could heap the same praise on the human cast, who all give fine performances but aren’t given a whole lot to do, except provide us with the exposition that most the apes are still too primitive to express with words. With the exception of Jason Clarke, (continuing, after “Zero Dark Thirty,” to prove himself to be one of our most undervalued actors), the human element in the story is mostly predictable and unnecessary. Sure, we need someone for the apes to rebel against and battle in the third act, but, (and I can’t believe I’m about to say this), for once I didn’t need Gary Oldman to give me a villain to hate, when Toby Kebbell’s scarred ape Koba was an even more frightening threat to the apes’ survival.
After the thrilling finale on the Golden Gate Bridge in “Rise,” the filmmakers could have easily have upped the action and just given us a 2 hour battle that outdid the original film. But the apes are just as compelling when they are on their own, alone in the forest, educating their young and nurturing their families. It’s so refreshing that we as an audience weren’t talked down to and given only explosions and apes with guns. Matt Reeves trusted us to actually care about these creatures as characters. There are long stretches in this film where we just see the apes communicating in silence with motions and sign language. When was the last time you went to a summer blockbuster and saw extensive use of subtitles? During one of these sequences, when Caesar tenderly caresses his wife after she gives birth to his son, one guy in the theater broke the silence with a fit of giggling. Given that laughter is infectious, it’s pretty hard for a crowded audience to not follow suit and give in to the broken tension. However, this gentleman was immediately shushed by those around him who were too absorbed and caught up in the emotion of the scene to help ruin it. It was a moment that not only made me proud of my fellow filmgoers, but even more for the filmmakers who treated the subject matter of talking apes taking over the world with the maturity and seriousness that no one would have suspected it deserved. Yes, the film does end with a spectacular battle in which apes ride on horses and dual wield machine guns, but Matt Reeves is in no hurry to get there, and in doing his job right, neither were we.
Hear more of Johnny Pomatto’s reviews on his podcast MOVIES AND FILMS WITH JOHNNY AND FRIENDS available on iTunes
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