Monday 25 August 2014

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Year: 2014
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Synopsis is here

For me, the biggest issue with the ever expanding summer film season, has a lot to do with the frequently changing narrative that occurs very Friday. As each tent pole gets released, last week’s film, and the column inches that come with it. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was released a week before Guardians of the Galaxy exploded onto the scene, yet it feels like the good word that came with the film had been lost by how to make dancing Groot pages. This is something of a shame. I for one believe that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the more effective film.

The nostalgia loving fans of Guardian of the galaxy were quick to label their film fun. In fact, to hold any argument to some people, that was the only statement given. “Shut up. It’s fun!” That’s all you need. The near obsessive call to have blockbusters that only seem to call back to the considered glory years of the 1980’s is more than a little strange. Mainly to the superficiality of it all. The likes of Chris Pratt’s slightly slobby space rouge gives a warm fuzzy feeling to those still whipped up in the eighties revival party, in that it’s different (new source) but not (comfortably familiar). James Gunn’s jovial yet frivolous feature utilises the slightly tiring template to a tee. Yet that doesn’t matter too much because fun is Chris Pratt. Whom I’ve already witnessed on meme replacing his face over Harrison Ford’s in Indiana Jones. New face, same feel. 
It is here I find Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as a much more forward thinking creature. It finds enjoyment in the grooves of the uncomfortable. It is also fun, but it’s prepared to suggest more than quick flashes of amusement. Its opening credits are an impressive world map of lights as the deadly simian flu slowly begins to take hold of the globe. From the start it primes us for risk, in a blockbuster world where we’re doing our best to ensure our heroes, like the goddamn Goonies, never die.

Drawing heavily from the themes, ideas and motifs that appeared across the whole of the original franchise; Dawn, like its processor Rise, is a taut and economic blockbuster. While the film still comes in at over two hours, Dawn observes the franchise’s important areas of focus and compiles in one film, what the four original sequels needlessly stretched out excessively. Much of this stems from a keener eye on the narrative from both the screenwriters and director. But Dawn’s highly praised technological elements, heavily improve upon the issues being placed across. The CGI allows apes with more distinction. The money spent allows world building of a grander scale and more plausible action. All this combined together gives us an action feature that is often, more the sum of its parts.

Bookended by a pair of watchful, unwavering primate eyes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is quick to throw us into the world of the apes before we ever see a human. The film forces us to absorb their world; a mixture of overgrown jungle and lost suburbia. We observe the apes; their ways of communication (mostly sign language) and their laws and social structure. What fascinated me about the film’s opening, is just how much the film is pushing us to relate to the apes way of being over the humans. Peter Jackson’s King Kong has elements of this, but nothing to this extent. By the end of the first act, I felt totally accustomed to their ways and habitat. Matt Brown expressed difficulty in relating to Ceasar and the apes in his always intelligent MAMO podcast, however when placing in consideration the socio-political aspirations and ideals that lie within franchise, (both old and new) as well as the unnervingly timely events that have occurred in St Louis, These new chapters in the apes saga seem quick to express that we as an audience need to address who or what we relate to within a movie screen. In a world where no one had a problem with a science teacher, becoming a drug overlord, we should be ok with intelligent apes. I certainly was.

Once the film's human characters enter the frame, Reeves’ carefully ratchets the tension from scene to scene. Tentative alliances are balanced in such a way that even smaller scenes lay delicately on tender hooks. We’re never too sure about whether the mood will change due to a gesture, tone of voice, or a stray bullet. Reeves’ film shows the assertiveness that came with the likes of Let Me In and Cloverfield, but Dawn has allowed his confidence to really flourish in his storytelling. The film’s screenplay is smart enough, but there are decisions in the visuals, characters and storytelling that are clearly showing a steady growth of a mainstream filmmaker. It’s certainly becoming extremely clear of the faith, directors have with Andy Serkis, whose positioning within the motion capture world is one of extreme importance, particularly within this world.

Dawn does struggle with a few issues. The films pacing in the latter stages is not ideal, with elements of the climax feeling a little tacked on. Granted the film underground section wishes to nod to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but the film's pace slows right down and the film loses some of the tension that was built. The film also follows the blockbuster trend of not really knowing what to do with its female characters. Keri Russell has more agency as a nurse than Sally Field in The Amazing Spiderman 2 or Elizabeth Olson in Godzilla, but she seems hardly essential to the plot. The films action is well structured and delivers us a wonderfully iconic image of rampant monkey carnage on horseback, yet no set piece feels as strong as the Golden Gate Bridge sequence from Rise.

This maybe because I was more caught up in the film's storytelling than anything else. A small but smart touch is having one of the film's characters, teach Cornelius English with a certain graphic novel, which like the Trouble man album found in Captain America: The Winter Solider says more about the film's themes than is the first lead on. When a supporting character, Carver begins to sound off about apes and their aggressiveness, I’m suddenly reminded of real life behaviors sounding eerily similar. Such moments evoke a gut impact that’s hard to shake off.

Meanwhile, the behavior of the film’s two antagonists isn’t just “bad guy” plot mechanics, they stem organically character's history and past interactions. What’s significant about both “villains” is they’re not necessarily wrong in their actions. Both appear to want the best for each side.  Both antagonists are more engaging than anything Ronan the Destroyer can muster.

On its surface, Dawn of the Planets of the apes is a solid blockbuster. A thrilling popcorn cruncher when it needs to be. It’s a “fun” movie, which is what everyone wants it seems. Under the hood, however, is an emotional and intelligent piece, which provokes the kind of responses that have slowly been disappearing from the mainstream blockbuster. Dawn casts its eye over themes such as civil rights, humanity and survival with a keenness in its eye that a viewer like myself will lap up with a hungry enthusiasm. The Planet of the Apes are now eight films deep and span over four decades. Now, with this recent interruption of the material, we are once again reminded that if we take off the rose tinted glasses of “fun” we can still enjoy escapist thrills while taking on board thoughtful and on point commentary. Same face. Fresh feelings.