Friday, August 15, 2014

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The Planet of the Apes movies were one of these series of films that always seemed to be on TV when I was a kid. Actually it always seemed to be Escape from the Planet of the Apes for some reason, but broadly speaking its a series I grew up with, and probably affected my sense of what Science Fiction, as a genre, should be - something that for all its faults wants to be about deeper things. So you can imagine how crushing I found the Tim Burton film, and how hard I fell for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which could have just been franchise fodder but instead insisted on being a smart, thoughtful movie. A couple of years on we get the inevitable sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, although I can't help but feel that they got the titles the wrong way round.

Set 10 years after Caesar donned the mantle of Simian Moses, and lead his people into the wilderness, the film starts with a striking montage showing the fall of human civilisation to the deadly plague inadvertently released at the end of the previous film. Its a sad, slightly harrowing sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film, as the growing Ape community is brought into contact with a group of human survivors, and struggle to avoid the inevitability of conflict. Like its predecessor, it's handsomely shot, intelligently scripted and both the motion capture actors and human parts are really well done.

It benefits from some smart choices in the script, which shows how important a bedrock that can be.Firstly this is a film that bleeds loss and pain and grief from everywhere; the human characters are stepped in the loss of their loved ones, their homes and their entire civilisation. Their motivation is admirable - to be that spark of hope that starts the climb back to what they've lost. Even the ones that act stupid still feel empathatic; scared, broken people feeling a weight they can't even rationalise, never mind deal with. The Ape characters - especially the films closest thing to a proper villain, Koba - carry the scars of their previous experiences, and a very real fear that resurgent humans could be a loss of the future for Apes.

So the whole thing plays out as desperate, post-apocalyptic, tragedy. I'm a sucker for this sort of thing, so the film pushed a lot of my buttons, and the whole muted, overgrown feel to the city landscapes, coupled with a pacing that lets it scenes breathe properly, really sucked me in. Ultimately, it's the apes story, not the humans, so I could have done with more of the human colony, but even so there was enough there - quiet moments, and mostly propped by Gary Oldman - to make the duality of the conflict work. Andy Serkis of course dominates as Caesar, but Koba is also a fantastic character without which it would all fall apart; both in the voice work and some great motion-capture as well.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes feels like a "proper" science fiction movie, one that understands that its not just enough to be set in the future but needs to reflect the present back at itself too. It talks a lot about conflict, and how there are two sides to everything, and how that sometimes, the rise and fall of communities is a zero-sum game and how it doesn't actually have to be - if only we can see a way through. It's thoughtful, and smart, and very, very sad, and it's always great to see that these sorts of films can still get made, and find a large audience.