Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, July 30, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a surprise hit, insomuch that a big budget reboot of a long-running and beloved film series can be a surprise. Maybe the surprise came from the movie actually being pretty good. A franchise had been reborn. A sequel, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” would arrive in theaters two years later. Director Matt Reeves, previously of “Cloverfield” and “Let Me In,” would take the directorial reins. Reeves delivered a film nearly as thoughtful and action-packed as its predecessor. Though the generic title would be mocked – seriously, they couldn't have called it “Rebellion on the Planet of the Apes” or something? – the second entry in the new “Apes” would prove to be another success, both critically and financially.

A decade has past since Caesar led his rebellion of apes. In that time, a virus – called Simian Flu by the public – has ravaged the human population. The apes have built a society in the forest, uncertain if humanity even still survives. Until a chance encounter in the woods with a group of survivors. The human are attempting to reach a near-by dam, so they can power their city. Caesar reluctantly allows them to go about their business. However, the truce infuriates Koba, who still hates human. Soon, the enraged ape attempts to kill Caesar and engineers a war against humankind.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” asks the question if peace between two hostile forces can ever possible. Caesar is now in the role of leader and peacekeeper. At film's beginning, he's a father, having beget two sons with his mate. He has found peace in the woods with his ape brothers. He distrust humanity but doesn't want war either, valuing ape life too much. Yet Koba forces his hand, fate making the decision for him. Andy Serkis' motion-capture performance continues to be highly expressive and thoughtful. You can see the quality that went into the character, from both the writing and the actor. “Dawn” is committed to maintaining the complexity of the protagonist displayed in the previous movie.

The other apes are not as complicated as Caesar but are nevertheless interesting. As in the last film, there are long scenes featuring just apes, dialogue mostly told through subtitled sign language. Maurice the orangutan continues to be a likable presence while Caesar's son, Rocket, gets several key scenes. The second most memorable ape is Koba, rising from supporting character to primary antagonist. Toby Kobell plays the part as someone whose heart has been calcified by hate and abuse. Koba has good reason to hate humans, as shown in a powerful scene where he points to his scars. There's not much more to him than that but his tenacity and viciousness makes him a convincing, threatening villain anyway.

“Dawn” focuses more on action than its predecessors. The film begins with a thrilling hunt, where the apes spear several deer and end up struggling with a bear. The CGI is a little wonky in this first scene – the bear and deer don't look as good as the apes – but it still works. The film really ramps up when Koba begins his assault on the human city. The sight of a crowd of apes racing into the streets, hooting and hollering, is effectively chilling. Chimps firing machine guns and riding horses is an irresistible, pulpy image. Reeves throws in an impressive tracking show, showing Koba throwing the drivers from a tank and manning the gun himself in one continuous take. The final struggle between Caesar and Koba, set inside a crumbling tower, makes use of the ape's acrobatic abilities.

The focus is more on the apes than ever before but “Dawn” still features some token, supporting humans. The most notable is Gary Oldman as Dreyfus. The leader of the human settlement, Dreyfus is some sort of war veteran. Oldman brings a shaky desperation to the part, playing him as a man who has lost much and is uncertain of how strong he is. Jason Clarke, that one actor who kept getting cast in big movies a few years ago for some reason, appears as Malcolm. The man who makes contact with the apes, and becomes an unlikely ally, Clarke is sound if unremarkable. Kodi Smit-McPhee has a nice role as Clarke's teenage son, who lugs around a tattered copy of Charles Burns' “Black Hole.” I wish we saw more of Keri Russell as Ellie, Malcolm's wife, who brings some sturdy emotion to her few scenes.

I'd probably consider “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” the weakest of the new “Apes” trilogy. Caesar's conflict in this film is not as compelling as in the other two. The story hits some expected story beats a little too hard. It's still a quality motion picture. The special effects have improved greatly from the first one. The scope is admirable. Reeves' direction is impressive. The cast, especially the mo-cap performers, are really good. The script is still surprisingly complex, considering the kind of movie this is. This is still a planet worth visiting. [7/10]

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