Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


SYNOPSIS: The worldwide viral pandemic seen spreading at the end of the last movie has decimated the human population, leading to quarantine zones and outbreaks of violence. Ten years later, power plants have shut down and humanity is struggling, while Caesar and his apes have built a civilization in the California woods. But when humans stumble into their domain in hopes of restarting a hydroelectric power plant, tensions arise between the groups. Koba, ever distrustful of humans, initiates a coup and a battle agains the humans. Though Koba's immediate threat is ultimately neutralized, it's not before the humans call in for reinforcement. Even as a new day dawns, the threat of war is coming.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a very good sequel. The story could have just been left there to linger and eventually pick up in the classic continuity. Instead, we jump ahead roughly ten years (likely a little more, but it's been "ten winters" since the apes have seen any humans). The effects work, which was a little bit dodgier in the first film, has improved in only three years' time. The movie essentially opens and closes on close-up of Caesar's face and it's much more believable than even in the first movie. While I'd still like something tangible onscreen again, I didn't feel as strongly the uncanny valley problem.

This is good because this movie is really about the apes and far less about the humans. That is both its strength and its weakness. The first movie rose on the strength of relating to Caesar on an emotional level, but was still grounded in human characters and situations. In this movie, the human characters are somewhat ill-defined; they are simply the outside threat. They are an Other, and while there are good ones and bad ones, they are more memorable as plot functions than as people. I do not remember any of their names. This is a movie from the ape perspective. While that is good thematically, it makes the film a little more inaccessible for a viewer, particularly as we have to fill in the missing history. The human needs are broad (more power for a city), and not nearly as personal. So while this movie does what it does very well, I can understand why some would prefer the prior movie.

It's interesting to see the development of ape civilization now. They have their own little Ewok village and have taken to using tools. It's a bit like the Dawn of Man sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey in that the apes have begun their shift toward being more humanoid. There are classrooms teaching apes to read, and teaching moral concepts about ape society. Caesar is now a family man with a grown son and a newborn. In another nod to the original film, the apes have now begun riding horses (never mind asking where the horses came from or what effect the Simian Flu has on them, if any). They haven't quite gotten to the level of clothing yet (Caesar's loss of clothing in the first film was a paradigm shift from his life in the human world to embracing his ape-ness), but some are adorned with handmade accessories of wood.

What we essentially have then is the clash of civilizations, which gets to the heart of the film's themes. Rise was a sci-fi meditation on animal rights and treatment of those weaker than us. Dawn is essentially a dystopian Western in which the apes play the role of the American Indians. It's a lot like a Dances With Wolves sort of story, in which the outside oppressors come for help and eventually earn trust but there is still war brewing. But it is handled in a way that never feels derivative or redundant. It's not like Avatar just rehashing whole plot points. Rather, it has application to other situations, but its actual story beats are grounded in the universe of the film. Like Pocahontas, it's a movie about prejudice on both sides. And when we think the antagonist is the humans, the ultimate villain comes from within the ape camp. Koba has been so harmed by the humans that he has nothing but hatred, and he is blinded by that (both literally and figuratively, as one eye was damaged in human testing). Caesar must come to the realization that just as he can eventually trust some humans again, he must learn to distrust some apes that are threats. A message of the film is that one cannot base allegiances solely on one's race or culture.  Koba undermined Caesar, and ultimately attempted to assassinate him and blame it on the humans. When Caesar tells him finally "you are no ape", we understand the difficulty for Caesar to come to that conclusion. It's easy to hate broadly; but it's better to trust cautiously.

Once again the cast does a good job. As the apes become more vocal the ape cast gets more opportunity to perform. The new additions serve the film well and it's always good to see people like Keri Russell (who I have loved since she was on the Mickey Mouse Club back in the '90s). The animation of the apes has improved, and there are great moments of simian behavior that still come through. There's a wonderful sequence where Koba feigns ignorance to scout among the humans about their weapons. He goes full circus monkey mode, and it totally disarms the humans before he shifts and actually disarms them. The animation work here is splendid; you can tell they really studied actual chimp behavior. The marriage of human motion capture and animation makes for some wonderful character moments.

What of the title? Part of me thinks it's sort of a nothing title, more reminscent of Dawn of the Dead than an ape film. But it works on several levels. First is the literal dawn at the end of the movie, for those wondering where the title came in. But I think it is also meant to call back to that "Dawn of Man" idea. The apes are no longer mere animals, even if hyperintelligent. They have dawned into a people, a civilization.

The nature of the movie, and its length, make me appreciate it but I don't quite enjoy it in the same way I did the first one. It's certainly an improvement on a technical level. But I do feel there's a kind of distance there because I'm meant to identify more with the apes than with the humans. There's something a little bit flat about the movie because once the conflicts are laid out, nothing really changes.  They just play out along those lines until the main storylines are wrapped up. So in that regard, it's maybe lacking a little, and knowing that it's leading into another film it may be suffering from "middle chapter syndrome". And yet what it does, and where it's going thematically, works well on its own terms. So while I don't think I'd be quick to revisit this one as often, I consider it a good movie and am interested in where the next film will go.

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