Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) – Review

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is visually spectacular and Shakespearian in its story construction, but ultimately feels insubstantial and slow.

Following the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (first Rise and then Dawn, will the next one be called Advent of the Planet of the Apes?), the film takes place ten years later. Most of the Earth’s human population has died out due to a simian flu and civilization has more or less crumbled. Yet, there are a few small communities still trying to survive. One such community exists in San Francisco. There, the people have a plan to turn things around, start over and rebuild – all they need is power as their fuel is about to run out. This leads them into the neighboring forest to find a dam that once powered the northern area of the Bay Area. They stumble upon a startling discovery: an ape village, ruled by Caesar who now has developed the ability to speak. Caesar has created a community as well, seeing the apes thrive. The men and apes make an uneasy truce as Caesar allows the men (lead by Malcolm) to access the dam, but there are combustible elements on both sides which will surely lead to a war between man and ape.

There is a lot to really like about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Visually, it is quite an achievement. Motion capture technology has seemingly completely blurred the line between live-action and computer animated performance. The performance that Andy Serkis gives as Caesar is just as powerful and visceral as any live-action actor – the technology is so precise in its capturing of the subtle elements that it feels just as real. This alone brings a lot to the film and its narrative and emotional weight, and to some extent is enough to make this film something special and groundbreaking (even more so than Rise of the Planet of the Apes or his brilliant work in The Lord of the Rings series).

Director Matt Reeves structures the narrative in a very interesting manner. First, it draws parallels between the apes and humans, seemingly blending them into a single entity by the end. Apes and humans are both capable of being good and evil; there is not one side that is wholly in the right. Reeves presents Caesar and Malcolm as being the good characters from their respective groups (driven by sound morals and honor), while Carver and Koba are the evil characters (driven by hate). The true leader of the humans, Dreyfus, is a bit harder to pin down (mostly due to his character being minimally explored). His actions seem to be in the service of human preservation and not especially driven by hate or anger – maybe fear. This somewhat mirrors Caesar’s son Blue Eyes as well (mixed with typical teenage angst: wanting to be treated like an adult before it is earned). He fears the humans, and thus he acts in a manner to preserve what he thinks is best for the apes. Reeves does not favor either side, as the parallels show that in many ways they are the same. Yet, the narrative is mostly told from Caesar’s perspective (which sees the human characters fall secondary in terms of character development).

The narrative also feels very Shakespearian as Caesar is betrayed by his trusted friend and number two Koba, who wants to seize control (something that he has always secretly wanted, even when following Caesar he was just always weaker until humans and their guns gave him an opportunity). Caesar is dethroned (and somewhat banished) only to make his triumphant return to try and reclaim the throne. Like most narratives that share story elements with Shakespeare’s work, viewers are very familiar with all the dramatic and narrative beats of these types of narratives. While the emotions and drama of Reeves’s staging of the action and theatrics are seemingly amplified by their basis in classical grand style (there is an added weight to the drama when it plays out in a manner that resembles the classic works because they are ingrained in our collective subconscious), they also run the risk of feeling a bit tired and played out. This is the case with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

In many ways it is miles ahead of the typical summer movie blockbusters we put up with in the name of entertainment (2014 has been especially weak in terms of high quality big films), but as dramatically ambitious as it is the film is lacking in a few key elements. Chiefly, the narrative is wholly unoriginal, which leads to it feeling incredibly slow at times, and it is not helped out by its deficiency of well-drawn characters (outside of Caesar and Koba). It also seemingly fails to really entertain as well, again the main culprits being its slow pacing and many meaningless characters the audience is not invested in.

Maybe it is just that I have seen too many films and television series. Maybe there are just no more innovative ways to tell the same stories over and over again, but I found myself disinterested in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes almost throughout. I recognized the story structure and thus the whole film was laid out, hitting each telegraphed narrative beat; any yet, this is not something new. Almost all films, especially big budget Hollywood films, are this way. The real reasons that this film seemed to lose me stem much more from its characters and maybe its tone, in the face of having poorly drawn characters overall.

In a medium in which all the stories have seemingly been told (at least in their main structural form), characters and/or spectacle are the main elements that make them interesting on a deeper level. From a spectacle and aesthetic standpoint, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is top notch, and thus really it is characters that are the main draw (this could just be for me). Caesar and Koba are strong characters, each with a fluid and satisfying arc; however, there are no other good ape characters (even Blue Eyes is mostly marginalized). Maybe it is greedy to want more. The problem is that Reeves structures the film to split time between the apes and humans (though, overall, the film is mostly Caesar’s); however, the humans are incredibly bland and really have no defining character moments or elements to make the audience care about them (probably because none of them will make it into the sequel – this is not confirmed, but this feels true, and thus why waist the time developing them in a film that is already too long). All the time spent with the humans alone is time wasted, slowing down the narrative momentum substantially. It would be fine for them to be one note characters if they only served the role of being a plot accelerator for Caesar and the apes (that is essentially the purpose they serve anyway), but why waste time with them if there is no intention of drawing them as full characters? Is it because, regardless of how strong a character as Caesar is and how well Serkis’s performance comes through, Reeves and the studio just did not fully believe that the apes alone could engage a human audience – that humans need human characters in live-action films to be fully engaged (forgetting that there have been good live-action films without humans in the past, things like Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, The Adventures of Milo and Otis, and Babe – we can anthropomorphize just about anything if we care about the characters)? I do not know.

Typically, Hollywood spectacle films with bland or thinly drawn characters rely on a lighter tone and comedy to increase the overall entertainment value of their product (mixing comedy and high violence seems to have worked out pretty well for the Transformers series). Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is tonally very dark, which too adds to the film feeling slow because the audience does not have moments of relief from the dramatic strife. This means that the characters need to be all the more interesting or the pacing needs to be tight. Again, the human-centric narrative elements fail utterly in this respect. The tone remains bleak and heavy and the pacing is maybe even slower (but it probably feels that way because the audience is being sidelined from the characters and narrative that they actually care about, instead having enduring characters they do not).

The film also seems to somewhat marginalize its female characters (which is nothing new in big Hollywood films; it is just disappointing). Human or ape, women are only caretakers and followers while men are warriors, leaders, and heroes/villains. Caesar’s wife Cornelia might as well not even be in the film (let alone played by the very talented Judy Greer). Her role is basically to give birth to his sons and be sick, needing human medicine which in turn garners Caesar’s trust of the humans. The film misses a real opportunity to showcase her character and strength once Koba takes Caesar’s throne, expelling him from the ape community. She could have been a voice of descent, loyal to Caesar, but is left out completely. Similarly, the only female human character is Ellie, Malcolm’s friend and love interest. She is never involved the decision-making, aside from wanting to come with Malcolm because she is the only one that has medical expertise (and thus is necessary for a future plot point). She too is primarily solely a caregiver. Thus, females in the film are only shown in their classic gender roles, completely sidelined from the action and dramatic meat of the film, making the film feel a bit narratively archaic (and wasting the talent of the good actresses playing the roles).

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a fantastic film and a disappointing film at the same time. It has wonderful visuals and its use of motion capture technology is astonishing, but its characters outside Caesar and Koba are incredibly boring and seemingly pointless. This very well could have been a two character piece based on ancient Rome’s Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus. The utter lack of strong supporting characters (or leading characters when the narrative switches to the humans) ultimately leaves the film feeling very slow, which is only amplified by its dark and weighty tone. Despite Caesar’s strong and classically-based character arc, the film just cannot invest its viewers fully because its pacing and lack of other good characters loses them along the way.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Matt Reeves with Let Me In and now Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has shown his talent for great aesthetics and capable directing. It is too bad that the script has let him down a bit (though, it is ultimately his responsibility in editing to create a film that works; it is clear that this is paced far too slowly). I look forward to seeing what he does next (which sounds like another Apes film, which he directly has a hand in scripting this time – so that is good).

The aesthetics of the film are phenomenal across the board. Michael Giacchino’s score is a highlight, providing an extra layer of gravitas and excitement to many of the scenes. I loved the little flourishes he adds in key dramatic moments. Michael Seresin’s cinematography is tonally just right for a film set in a post-apocalyptic world. Everything is very bleak and gloomy; yet, Seresin still allows for the actors and animated creations to be fully visible so that the audience can see their full emotional performances play out on their faces. James Chinlund’s production design is also great. I particularly found the central ape dwelling (Caesar’s home) to be aesthetically very interesting. I also think simple things like the overgrown 76 Station are nice touches in creating a world long forgotten by modern civilization.

The cast in the film is good overall, although many have to make the most out of weak characters. Kirk Acevedo plays the caricature “evil human”, personified by Carver (the role embodied by Draco Malfoy in Rise of the Planet of the Apes). He hates the apes, unabated by the reality of the world he lives in. For him it is not fear but unbridled hate and Acevedo does a great job portraying that (giving what is probably the best performance among the human characters).  Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Malcolm’s son but really does not have much to do, but he brings a certain grace to the role (reuniting with Reeves, having appeared as a lead in Let Me In). Keri Russell too does not have much to do playing Ellie. She is not much more than a plot device, and yet she too brings something extra to the role (as well as reuniting with Reeves as well; Reeves was on the main creative people on Felicity). Gary Oldman plays Dreyfus, the leader of the humans. He is an ex-military man who lost his whole family to the simian flu. Oldman like every human character does not have much to do aside from push the plot forward, but as an excellent character actor he still conveys the weight and pain of his decisions. Jason Clarke plays Malcolm, the human who befriends Caesar. He is the main human character and thus for many viewers is more or less the linchpin to whether the film works or not. If he can pull the audience in and make them care about him then the film will play infinitely better, but if he succumbs to the weak writing handicapping his character then the narrative will feel incredibly slow and lose its viewers. While Clarke does his best, I do not think that the writing and narrative structure/pacing could be overcome regardless of how good he is in the film. Toby Kebbell plays Koba and is excellent. He is consumed by hate and envy and his performance is only amplified by the scares and scary visual appearance of Koba. He is always going to be a villain, just look at that face. Andy Serkis is also brilliant as Caesar. He is the master of the motion capture performance (his Gollum is among my favorite performances from the last decade). Caesar, through the animators and Serkis’s work, is able to showcase a full range of emotion, including the nuances of Serkis’s performance. He is also able to emotionally engage the audience to a much greater extent than any of the human-character actors’ performances. It is fine work.

Summary & score: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes should be praised for its storytelling ambition and visual/technological execution; it is just too bad that it is so let down by its weak narrative structure. 6/10

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