Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" Improves Upon Very Good Predecessor

Caesar brandishes a gun in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
I posted a tentative list of my top 10 films of 2014 on New Year’s Eve knowing that as I continued to see more and more 2014 releases, it would drastically change.

We’re barely two weeks into 2015, and the list is already out of date, and it's not because I saw one of the many acclaimed films (Selma, Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler, Birdman, Boyhood, and The Imitation Game to name a few). Instead, the change comes courtesy of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a film I was highly anticipating but did not realize would be nearly this damn good.

Dawn deepens and expands upon the highly enjoyable and affecting Rise of the Planet of the Apes, taking the narrative further down the bleak path that’s all but necessary if these prequels are seriously meant to align with the iconic Charlton Heston film.

The film picks up roughly a decade after the first film, with most of humanity having been killed off by the simian flu (all the major ape characters from the previous film return, while all the major human characters are long dead). The surviving humans are seemingly immune to the virus, and have etched out an existence in a rundown San Francisco under the leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcom (Jason Clarke). In dire need of a power, these survivors aim to restore a nearby dam, but in so doing, they encroach on the developing ape community that Caesar founded in the Muir Woods at the end of the first film. In an effort to avoid war, Malcom and Caesar attempt to forge diplomatic relations, but pressures from untrusting extremists in each group make that very difficult.

That’s all I’ll say for the plot. As was the case with Rise, the humans comprise the weaker part of the story, but the script takes time to give almost every character of consequence, be they ape or human, some level of dimensionality. Like most science fiction, the Planet of the Apes series has always been bluntly allegoric, and that hasn’t changed here. The inevitability of war, the folly of racial hatred, and anti-gun sentiment are just a few of the ideas jostling around in this thing.

Thematics aside, this is one hell of an action film. The pace is pretty relentless, and the special effects and action set pieces are downright dynamite. A sequence in which the apes make an assault on the human fortress is one of the most jawdropping action scenes I've ever seen – even better than the great bridge battle that ended the last film. Not only does it look great, but it’s just so damn innovative in its choreography.

But, on top of all that, this is also a rock solid character piece. Combined with Rise, this is basically a clinic on how to do a prequel origin story. One need only look at how successful Caesar has been fleshed out here to realize just how awful a ball drop those Star Wars prequels were. Prior to this series, Caesar was probably one of the most iconic antagonist in film history – but now, courtesy of Serkis and some great work from the effects team, he’s also one of the most well-developed, empathetic and relatable heroes your likely to come across. And, Star Wars isn’t the only touchstone the film brings to mind – the narrative is extremely Shakespearean, and Julius Caesar is an obvious point of reference in the central relationship between the magnanimous Caesar and the vengeance-seeking Koba (Toby Kebbell).

Frankly, It's a shame this film didn't receive more end-of-year love. I know it’s a science fiction film, but so is Snowpiercer and that’s showing up on all sorts of top 10s. As far as the Oscars go, the film got a well-deserved special effects nomination today, but it would've been deserving in a few more places. I understand it's a reach to assume at this point that Serkis could've cracked the very crowded best actor field, but would this not be the perfect year to give the guy an honorary Oscar? He's given his best ever motion capture performance here, and the technology is being increasingly embraced in the industry, with big name actors like Vin Diesel now embracing the form as a way to move outside the box their actual screen persona puts them in.

 Regardless of the year-in-review recognition it's getting, I’ll bang the drum for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Although there's a great chance Dawn will ultimately fall out of my top ten, it's in there right now. This is a total must-see, and one of the best films of 2014. A-