Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: That Rare Sequel

     I can't say that I was ever too interested in the older Apes films, though they clearly hold a special place in many moviegoer's hearts. So I was very surprised when back in 2011 I found the reboot of the franchise--Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco no less--a perfectly enjoyable summer diversion with a great motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis, the king of creature acting. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place 10 years after the events of the first film, where the Simian Flu has devastated the world and the super-smart apes reign over the woods without a sign of a human for multiple years. It's a rare sequel that surpasses the already-good original, a fitting mid-summer movie with action, intensity, heart and emotion. And yet again, it showcases Andy Serkis and his unbelievable ability to breathe realistic life into a computer-generated creature.
     News reports at the beginning of the film show that the world is now a post-apocalyptic landscape. The Apes that Dawn focuses on live in the steep woods outside the crumbling city of San Francisco, where throughout the years following the human collapse their leader, Caesar (Serkis), has taught the rest of the apes to flourish. They can communicate through hand signals (and in the rare instance, speaking actual English). They haven't seen humans for years, and the majority think that it's for the best: since some of the apes had been experimented on (essentially tortured) in the first film, the distrust they feel is warranted. The new little prospering world that they have created is thrown into disarray when a few gun-equipped humans show up, looking to restore a dam to bring back some of the city's electricity.
     One of the main problems with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (also a bigger problem of Godzilla earlier this year) is the human characters. Gary Oldman portrays a sort-of military leader of the humans--it's safe to say that he's not keen on the apes controlling the land that the dam sits on. Keri Russell (damn good in FX's The Americans recently) pops up as the sympathizing significant other of Jason Clarke, who--like James Franco in the first film--realizes the potential and love that the apes can bring to Earth. But nobody impresses. The apes--led by Andy Serkis--portray far more emotion than their human counterparts. And when an ape deception occurs, you feel it as hard as any other human drama.
   Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a summer blockbuster where you would just assume not have any fighting or destruction. Can't they all just get along? That's a testament to the awesome computer-generated apes and the stellar direction by Matt Reeves. With Cloverfield and Let Me In, he's been a director to showcase a signature style: but in Dawn he's truly come into his own, creating a sequel that's better in every way than it's predecessor. The mixture of action, emotion, tension and drama is an impressive balancing act, and it catapults the film far higher than most of this year's sad display of cinema.
      Like my the last film I reviewed, Snowpiercer, Dawn delves into social ideas about discrimination, equality, and deception. This time it's just humans vs. apes rather than humans vs. humans. But Dawn is good enough even if you're just there for the action. Sure, the image is (kinda) laughable of an ape duel-wielding machine guns riding a horse into battle. But with the tension-filled buildup, it's hard to not be excited by it. And Reeves stages some great scenes that have you picking sides, rooting for who you think is right. If you've been a bit bummed by this year's film entertainment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a good remedy: an ape evolution that's thoughtful and thrilling.     (B+)

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