Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

 2.5 / 5 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the movie 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes could have been but thankfully wasn't.

Rise of Planet of the Apes avoided all the cliches of the awful 2001 Planet of the Apes remake by focusing not on the apes themselves but on the humans who, it turned out, caused their own planet to be taken over by intelligent simians.

It was all an accident, Rise posited -- one driven by greed and arrogance, fueled by the need for technological innovation at all costs.  Rise began hundreds of years before the story we all know took place, and suggested that the apes would evolve and grow into the culture and civilization that wayward astronauts would discover years hence.

Rise was sensationally imaginative, aware and intensely respectful of its source material, but so unexpected and engaging because it didn't center its story on a war between apes and man, on a battle for the planet that (we all know) they will conquer in the end.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes centers it story on a war between apes and man and on a battle for the planet that (we all know) they will conquer in the end.

It replaces the sly ingenuity of the first film with exactly the sort of CG-created spectacle of thousands of apes facing off against thousands of men that the first film so assiduously avoided.  While Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a wondrous feat of digital filmmaking -- the first 20 minutes or so are basically an animated film based on some fantastic motion-capture performances -- there's precious little emotional pull to the story.

The whole thing gets going with a pulse-quickening introduction that continues a terrific moment from the end credits of the first film: From a single point of contact, a "simian flu" spreads around the world.  Within months, millions of people are wiped out, and it isn't long before fewer than 1 in 500 humans remain.

A bunch of them are holed up in San Francisco, just across the bay (via the Golden Gate Bridge, the favorite destruction toy of CGI artists) from an ape stronghold in Marin County -- in the Muir Woods, to be precise, where apes have built up their own rudimentary commune that isn't too different than the kind of place pot-smoking hippies might have built in Marin County in the 1960s.  They live in harmony, and for 10 years, not a single ape has crossed the bridge into San Francisco, and not a single human has crossed the bridge into Marin.  It's been a wonderfully peaceful time, apparently.

Down in San Francisco, things have turned remarkably wild, given that thousands of people are still living there.  As their base of operations, they've chosen not to use the old City Hall (which still stands in remarkably clean condition, we come to find out), but an old mall that is tattered and torn.

When the movie starts, some of the humans have finally ventured north, and naturally they run smack into the apes, and within minutes the peace is shattered.  The apes don't trust the humans.  The humans don't trust the apes.  Except for some of the more enlightened among each species, including Caesar (Andy Serkis), the chimpanzee from the first film.  He's the leader of the apes.  The leader of the humans is a loose cannon named Dreyfus, who we know is a loose cannon because he's played by Gary Oldman, who is rarely cast in a film for his sensibility and sanity.

But some of the humans want to broker a peaceable deal with the apes.  The chief pacifist humans Malcolm and Ellie, who are played by actors who are very attractive (Jason Clarke and Keri Russell) and are entirely, blandly forgettable.  Not a single one of the humans in this Planet of the Apes movie matches the interest of James Franco and John Lithgow in the first movie.  The main reason they want to come to terms with the apes is that there is a hydroelectric dam that in the last decade no one has ever started up, and even though it's clogged with 10 years' worth of tree roots and has all sorts of burned out electrical parts that used to take a large staff to maintain, the pacifists can fix it.  In a few days.  And restore power to all of San Francisco.

As someone who has tried my hand, unsuccessfully, at both screenplays and novels, I'm the last person who should be calling out lazy storytelling.  It isn't easy to tell such a big story convincingly and with the kind of energy that propelled the first, and the concept of a handful of poorly equipped humans fixing a hydro-electric dam in a matter of days might not be lazy, but it's at least lollygagging.

While Caesar makes tentative friends with these humans, another ape named Koba is less trusting of the humans, and leads an expedition to the city only to discover -- shocking! -- humans still like guns, and they have enough to quash any takeover attempt.  But, naturally, the apes (though they've never seen a stockpile of ammunition in their lives) develop a plan to seize control, and it's not long before Gary Oldman is standing on the balcony of the old shopping mall shouting, "There!  On California Street!  Here they come!"  And the apes are on the attack.

Who's going to win?  Will Koba's uprising threaten Caesar and his colony of apes?  These are the questions the film uses to propel its third act, but I was more intrigued by other questions, namely: Why do the apes have a sudden desire to speak English when sign language has done so well for them for a decade?  And how difficult was it for them to learn how to correctly conjugate and decline verbs with such flair?  For apes who haven't heard a word of English in the past decade, they are awfully good at speaking -- and, in a few shots, writing.  What made them choose English, by the way?  Why not create their own ape language?

These are the kinds of questions it seems to me that Rise of the Planet of the Apes might have been interested in answering.  It was a big-budget movie, to be sure, but it seemed to have less interest in pleasing its audience than pleasing its filmmakers -- which is, generally, a fantastic way to ensure a pleased audience.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which ends with the kind of all-CG ape-on-ape action sequence with which it began, doesn't feel as eager to keep on the track its predecessor set, but more like it was trying to please a lot of studio executives eager to reboot a franchise.

By the final shot, the movie fails to determine its conclusion.  The bad guys have tried to take down a building, but somehow it didn't work so it's better just to ignore them anymore.  The good guys are somewhere, but they've served their purpose so other than giving each other a satisfied hug, they have no role to play.  Only the apes have a real need to move forward; they have won a  victory at the end of the movie, but just what that victory is or why it matters -- that's something the filmmakers don't bother to tell is.  Instead, we get a shot of CG apes looking up at their CG leader, in his eyes humanity (or ape-anity?) gleams in the future.  He is ready to lead them.  They roar their approval.  The movie holds on his eyes and ...

Where?  When?  Why?  What is happening next?  Where did this story just take us?  Impossible to know for sure, based on the evidence that's at hand.  But the lights are coming up in the theater, the credits are rolling, so that must have been a great movie!  That last shot must mean something important!

I imagine a lot of people will leave the movie feeling that way, feeling that the swelling crescendo of Michael Giacchino's score and the stolid, heavy-breathing looks of Andy Serkis are enough to propel us into the next Planet of the Apes movie. I'm just not sure exactly where they will go with it.   I cared a lot, after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, to find out what came next.  Now that I know, I'm not sure I have much interest in going any further.  They started with a concept that left all of humanity at imminent risk; they ended with a scene that implies, "Hey, let's built ourselves a city in San Francisco."

Based on the evidence here, the Apes movies are getting smaller and less interesting.  I remain mildly interested to see where they will take it, though, mostly because it seems to have so little place to go -- except, of course, east to New York.  That could be interesting, I suppose.

Viewed July 13, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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