Monday, July 14, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

This is the movie the summer of 2014 needed. It's predecessor, 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was a really good film that carefully and somberly laid the foundation for what was to come; now, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has managed to surpass it in many technical and artistic respects, and adds layers of post-apocalyptic drama to an old story whose ending we already know. That director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) was able to deliver a respectable sequel in the midst of an unusual summer movie drought makes it all the more satisfying.

In the world of the movie, ten years have passed since Rise left us hanging. In that time, a sizable community of genetically modified apes with remarkable intelligence has flourished in the forests near San Francisco. This group includes Caesar (Andy Serkis), the most advanced among them and the leader of the pack thanks to the revolt and escape from human captivity he orchestrated in Rise. The apes are still outnumbered by the humans, it seems, but maybe not for long. What humans are left after a viral pandemic huddle in squalid conditions in a ravaged downtown San Francisco, faced with dwindling fuel and the prospect of no electricity. The virus that wiped out most of the human population--including Caesar's boyhood caretaker (Rise's James Franco)--was, you'll recall, first developed to be a miracle cure for human neurodegenerative disease before it was found to have deadly side effects. For whatever reason, a small fraction of humans were immune, though, and those are the ones who now live in fear of the apes and in fear for their livelihoods. We are led to believe that beyond San Francisco's ruins, other pockets of surviving humans exist, but we never see them; a montage of grave news reports during the opening credits leaves no doubt that the whole world was affected by the virus.

The people are led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a man who harbors a building, jealous hatred for the apes. One resident, Malcom (Jason Clarke) convinces Dreyfus to let him go with a small group into the forest to attempt to repair a large dam; if the mission is accomplished, power could be restored to the city, enabling its inhabitants to live substantially healthier, more comfortable lives than they've known for a decade. The only problem: the apes control the forests, and Malcom will need to earn the trust of Caesar before he'll ever be able to approach the dam. This precarious interaction between desperate humans and prideful apes is the vehicle by which the film drives us into its emotional and ponderous new world.

New world, indeed. In fact, it is the film's focus on the apes and their civilization, rather than on humans' plight--that makes this story abound with technical wonder and visceral entertainment. The human characters predictably argue and fight among themselves. And sure, there is an extreme amount of tension between the humans and the apes. But even within the apes' own nascent society there are degrees of mistrust and lawlessness. Some apes, including Caesar, have experienced and benefited directly from the "good side" of humans; others suffered horribly in humans' cages and seek revenge. These differing perspectives allow for dynamic relationships among the apes that are startling and have fans already looking forward to the franchise's next installment, due in 2016.

Mr. Serkis should go down in history as one of Hollywood's great pioneers, paving the way for future CGI motion capture actors to do things we can't even imagine now; his performances have become spectacles in and of themselves, with each new effort trumping the last. Here, as the conflicted, wise but vulnerable Caesar, Mr. Serkis reaches new heights of nuance and raw emotion. Toby Kebbell and Karin Konoval, as his fellow apes Koba and Maurice, hold their own, along with the rest of the ape cast. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the best films of 2014.

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