Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (2014)
Monkey see and monkey do, making sequels, eating food. Well, actually, that’s not biologically accurate as the hirsute protagonists of this newly evolving franchise are apes not monkeys, a clear genealogical split which our Simian siblings would not be happy to accept. The original film Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was an unexpected blockbuster treat of 2011, arriving with little fanfare or beating of chests it’s stylish blend of CGI, re-imagining of popular SF metaphors and action beat histrionics marked it as one of the more homo superior blockbusters of recent lineage, its critical and commercial success guaranteeing a new installment which has finally swung into theatres. The original film series ran from the late 1960’s to the mid-1970’s (Famously the first one won best make-up over 2001 as Academy members allegedly thought Kubrick had trained real apes for his movie) and has been approached from a number of angles, it’s been analysed as a metaphor of the upheaving social change of the 1960’s, the emergence of the counterculture movement, the birth of civil rights and the growing dissatisfaction with the status quo and class consciousness. Both of the recent films in this second cycle (nope, I don’t care what you say, this never happened) strike me as less ideologically charged and more scientifically minded, with two entries now expressing a sheathed commentary on todays ominous environmental concerns, the tampering in the realm of god through genetic manipulation, the lack of due diligence on science run amok and subsequent catastrophic impacts, and a ruthless scramble for dwindling & scarce resources. Seeing the first one was a memorable cinema experience as I caught it with a deeply enthusiastic audience at the Sky Superscreen during the Empire Film Festival, the second didn’t quite induce the same effects, it’s an above average blockbuster but claims of this being among the ‘movies of the year’ indicate that some critics are going native…..
A decade after the apocalyptic outbreak of simian flu mankind has been decimated with only 1 in 500 resisting the terminal syndrome, society disintegrating into chaos and anarchy, a wretched state of affairs all communicated through a rather restrained post-credits montage. In scenes reminiscent of recent console smash The Last Of Us a creepingly quiet nature has slowly reclaimed our crumbling urban centres and swamped our early sigils of civilisation, while intelligent ape Caesar (mo-cap marvel Andy Serkis) and his pack of simian brethren have established their own antediluvian society in the remote San Francisco hills they dissolved into at the climax of the last film. Now the undisputed leader of his tribe Caesar has overseen a period of progression, peace and taken a mate whom has sired him two sons, with the belligerent Koba (Toby Kebbell) as his second in command at his side, his unyielding hatred of humans culled from years as a surgical specimen before Caesar freed him in the last movie. Although man has not seen for a decade a small pocket of survivors has recently returned to San Francisco, desperate for electrical power to boost their communication efforts to reach out to other potential groups Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and his crones identify a dormant resource in the nearby abandoned dam, which just so happens to squat uncomfortably in dangerous ape territory. An initial mutual antipathy and suspicion of alternate motives gradually cools between expedition leader Malcolm (Jason Clarke,) his doctor girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell) and Malcom’s son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Caesar being presumed by some of his kin as dangerously trusting of the humans due to his upbringing among the treacherous species whom have destroyed the planet. Inevitably the unquenchable thirst for resources and itchy trigger fingers on both sides of the DNA Rubicon results in disaster, and both human and ape face-off for the future of global domination……
An initial slight exasperation and disappointment with the film has softened to a mild appreciation over the past 72 hours, maybe it’s the juxtaposition with the nauseating and deeply depressing news emerging from Gaza and Eastern Europe over the weekend, but in contrast to some blockbusters of summer season Dawn is slowly evolving into a film of its time. It’s not just the darkness evident in the film – and I mean that visually as well as figuratively as the movie unfolds against a consistently overcast and charcoal smudged sky, with muted landscapes and color palettes emphasising ink dense blacks, searing fire scorched oranges and bloodthirsty reds – it’s like The Road but without the laughs. The film mournfully positis the inevitably of conflict and carnage even in the midst of intelligent and thoughtful leadership, with fringe elements falling prey to fear and intolerance, suspicion and hatred. In the struggle for natural resources the concept of sharing is sacrificed for the sake of one species survival, regardless of how close the DNA strands may intertwine. It’s therefore a little jarring when this incredibly solemn film lumbers in an uneasy gait to the rather unnecessary Hollywood set-pieces and action sequences, the mirroring of fathers and son’s relationship mirrored across the races somewhat smothered by the digital rendered combat bruising the screen, although one widely acclaimed 360 degree APC mounted action amelioration has already got the genre nerds beating their chests in appreciation. This tonal discord is further emphasised by all the human character being undeveloped and poorly written, their personalities barely breaking the surface of the most perfunctory stock characterisation – noble, leader, sneaky coward, nurturing female, inquisitive adolescent. Perhaps this was a conscious decision to shadow the humans with the stunningly rendered apes, Weta have again shattered the illusory glass ceiling of the uncanny valley and this achievement is the films clear highpoint, while Michael Giacchino’s score provides a pleasing aural link back to the original series afrobeat shrieking and grunting.
So despite these construction issues the film feels very contemporary and speaks truth to power, it’s Stateside roaring success has daubed the warpaint on director Matt Reeves and franchise screenwriters / producers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver whom have already enlisted for the next step in franchise evolution, I do hope they actually get round to weaving in with the original and undisputed classic of SF with the Icarus mission setting the whole Moebius strip timescale into motion. So far the first two films in this 21st century incarnation have roughly mapped to the original cycle entries of Escape From The Planet Of The Apes and Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, so how can they potentially leap to a presumed distant future? Well I think I read somewhere that one of the Easter Eggs buried in Rise was a background broadcast announcing the astronaut mission of someone called Taylor which suggests they are cunningly setting the franchise up for a long-ball, although Dawn doesn’t have the mischevious genre inversions of this wonderful little moment. I’ve been hearing tales of scattered laughter and disbelief at some screenings due to the apes humanlike activities and behaviours, so the film does occasionally falter when attempting a highwire walk between pathos and absurdity – this is a film where apes wield machine guns and associated ordinance, chat to each other in a rudimentary vocabulary and have seemingly mastered equestrian mounted warfare – but it just about manages to traverse its circus act and actually tugs at the heartstrings in places as once again Serkis proves himself as the undisputed master of the performance capture method, his heroic Caesar shining with empathy through his CGI soaked carapace. If you devolve your expectations and swing into this seeking only a flawed yet entertaining ride then you should be happy, a worthy but flawed franchise continuation with visual effects of revolution mated with topical evolution;