Film and TV

Reviews for the Easily Distracted:
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Title: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

First Rise, Then Dawn; When Do We Get To The Actual Planet? Pretty soon.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Four Guenters (from Futurama) out of five.

Brief Plot Synopsis: Ape not kill ape. Beyond that, knock yourself out.

Tagline: "Apes together strong."

Better Tagline: "Yes, they finally made a monkey out of me."

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Has it really been ten years since the "simian flu" wiped out 90 percent of the world's human population? How time flies. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is now leader of a confederation of fellow chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and one orangutan living in the forests outside San Francisco. As luck would have it, a human settlement in the ruins of the City by the Bay is planning to repair a nearby hydroelectric dam so they can listen to classic rock and weep over old digital photos, like you do. Trouble is, the dam is in Ape Country, so it's up to expedition leader Malcolm (Jason Clarke) to convince Caesar to let the humans do their work. Unfortunately, there are parties on both sides eager to shock the monkey/kill all humans.

"Critical" Analysis: There's a great deal to like about DotPotA (that looks like a Defense Department acronym): the depiction of near-future Earth, the "evolution" of ape society, the lack of idiotic pyrotechnics in place of story. It's easily the best of the ersatz 2014 summer "blockbusters," and will likely end up one of the best movies of the year.

Looking back, it's no one thing director Matt Reeves does that makes it succeed like it does. There's only one major battle scene, which we'll allow for dramatic reasons, even if the concept of apes becoming expert marksmen (with bottomless ammo magazines) may strain your eye-rolling muscles. Ignoring, for a moment, the scale of CGI necessary to bring an army of apes to life, the only other sequence that plunges us into the uncanny valley is the final battle between Caesar and another ape whose identity I won't spoil but will be apparent within the first 15 minutes.

Everything else is a masterful slow burn. From the first moments we see Caesar and the apes -- poised to ambush a herd of deer -- the tension never really lets up. Reeves builds a fine, suspenseful atmosphere over the course of the first two acts, lending real emotional weight to the plight of both factions. Ape and human alike are scarred by post-Rise events, and we want very much for Malcolm and Caesar to be able to unite their respective groups, or at least sign some sort of primate peace deal.

But we know that's not going to happen, and if there is a significant weakness to Dawn, it's the sense of inevitability that permeates the film. Unless Reeves and company are planning on deviating significantly from the narrative (and from, you know, the idea of a *planet* of *apes*), the future -- to a certain point -- is set. Humans and apes won't be living together in some sort of Panacea troglodytes at film's end.

Caesar's in a particular bind this time around, dealing with family issues as well as existential ones. He's hamstrung by his lingering affection for (one assumes) the long-dead Will (James Franco, appearing in a brief video flashback/cameo), and this perceived weakness puts him at odds with former medical test subject Koba (Toby Kebbell), who believes the humans must be eliminated. And anchoring this all once again is Serkis, now earning top billing for another remarkable "mocap suit" performance.

Koba's human counterpart is Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), leader of the San Francisco settlement. Like most humans, Dreyfus hates/fears apes because of that pesky virus that almost eradicated mankind (including his wife and kids). Based solely on that, it'd be easy to dismiss his hatred as a shallow character conceit, but what makes Dawn so tragically effective is the way both sides are understandably drawn into conflict. Koba ends up expertly manipulating the apes, and Dreyfus' reaction to their aggression, as well as his incredulity at Malcolm's subsequent actions, are perfectly believable.

It's hard to believe that we would get such a thoughtful, (relatively) non-bombastic release so relatively early in the summer, but DotPotA is the real deal, and a hell of a lot smarter than it has a right to be.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is in theaters today. We love you Dr. Zaius.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar