Cinema Siren says: Spectacular Simians should make Dawn the brightest of summer blockbusters
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is so surprising in its excellence, its depth, beauty, and substance, it is hard to oversell to anyone with the remotest interest in seeing it, and almost incumbent upon us as reviewers to get a few cynics and naysayers into theater seats. Potential audiences can rise their expectations from wherever they lay, as cinematically, it breaks new ground and raises the bar in almost every way.
For those in the know as well as for fans just looking to enjoy a tautly exciting and emotionally complex experience, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a feast of wonderments. The production design features visual intricacies. There are verdant ape-built forest environments and post-apocalyptic cityscapes. The special effects courtesy of WETA Digital offers simians of diverse species interacting in actual outdoor spaces, all designed and represented in not only a believable way, but in a way that connects the audience wholly to the story lines and emotional arcs of the characters. The script is a complicated but engrossing weave of exciting story, complex moral and philosophical subjects, and meaningful emotional connectivity through well built characterizations. What is most impressive, however, is how all the aspects of the film blend together so seamlessly, blurring like never before the lines of special effects and production design, performance capture, animation and traditional acting. Dawn of The Planet of the Apes succeeds in everything it attempts to do, and as a mainstream Hollywood release it blows nearly every predecessor away.
Those who did not see the first in the Planet of the Apes reboot can easily catch up with the story as it begins in Dawn. The film takes place in and around San Francisco. Ten years have passed since the Simian flu, which was created by humans in an experimental lab, caused the deaths of most of the world’s population. It has thrown back those who survived into living in ramshackle squaller without most of the comforts technology and organized society had afforded them. Mutated apes that escaped labs after genetic experimentation expanded their intellectual capacity, have been building their numbers into the thousands. They live beyond the city in the forests of Marin County in a huge treehouse-based colony, led with statesman-like wisdom by Caesar (Andy Serkis), who has spearheaded the development of a near-utopian society comprised of a wide variety of ape species. A small band of humans, unsuspectingly encroaches on the ape domain, in hopes of restarting the generator that might bring power back to their city. Most of the humans don’t trust most of the apes. This leaves it up to human Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and ape leader Caesar to find a way to keep the peace. Complications multiply from there, and this spoiler free review will only say the action elicits in the audience feelings of intense dread, adrenaline rushes, emotional attachment, and catharsis, and not always in that order.
While there are a number of stand out performances, those in ape roles eclipse those of the humans largely by nature of the story. Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as compassionate human Malcolm, his nurse mate Ellie , and son Alex, have moments where they shine, but those moments are always in scenes with ape characters. Particularly moving are specific scenes between Malcolm and Caesar, and between Alexander and Maurice (Karin Konoval), an orangutan teacher loyal to Caesar. Gary Oldman as bad guy “I want the best for the humans which means killing every damned dirty ape” Dreyfus is suitably distracted by and anchored in his own grief, making an otherwise one dimensional character more interesting.
In terms of what draws the audience attention, it is the apes here that run the show. Andy Serkis as Caesar once again shows he is indisputably the emperor of performance capture. He plays a role that will shatter all preconceived notions of what it means to act on film.
He is aided in his pursuit of excellence by WETA digital, who have advanced their technology to the degree where, along with the other actors playing ape characters, we are able to see nearly every of his nuanced acting choices translated onscreen. To use an intentional pun, they are capturing a moment in cinematic history. The new software and equipment has been made so sturdy and strong that it allows for the thespians playing apes to act within the physical environment without fear of wrecking the data, and this along with how specifically their movements are being read down to each detail, has clearly freed them to use their whole bodies and make more personal and individual choices as actors.
All the ape characters communicate largely by sign language, and several of them don’t speak words, yet they area able to draw the audience’s allegiance. Notably Caesar’s son Blue Eyes, (Nick Thurston) compels the filmgoers to care for his conflicted position in the story, making the potential of a positive outcome for his character one of the major hooks of the film. There is such depth and power in the relationships between the apes as written in the script. That the actors in partnership with the artists at WETA get that across so well is what raises a good movie to greatness. Both Andy Serkis as lead actor and WETA digital as effects house should be recognized come awards season.
The production designer James Chinlund and cinematographer Michael Seresin must partner with effects artists such as WETA supervisor Joe Letteri to make the action seamless in terms of integrating physical environments, special effects, animation, and motion capture, in order to allow the audience to buy into the high emotional and moral stakes on offer. This successful collaboration must have exceeded everyone’s expectations. It is impossible to single out one facet, although probably WETA digital’s advancements in motion capture technology were the most essential piece of the cinematic puzzle. Michael Giacchino’s score deserves mention for adding appropriate aural weight and brevity in all the right places.
Many philosophical questions are posed here. There is the struggle that ensues when kinship and loyalty to family are in direct conflict with what is morality right. The film ponders the meaning of allegiance, and what constitutes betrayal, and they are expertly woven into the non-stop action. Of course, the oft-asked question of what it means to be human is also at the center of the story. In DOTPOTA, humanity takes surprising forms, as does cruelty, forgiveness, and compassion. Don’t let the weighty subject matter deter you, however, it only adds to the power of it. There is not one wasted moment onscreen.
Little beefs include the sad cliche of females both ape and human being relegated to worrier caretakers while the menfolk go out to solve societal problems, as well as the repetitive reminder through the script that the bellicose and peace loving exist in humankind and apekind in equal measure. The necessity to limit simian sentences to a Tarzan-like simplicity has potential with the odd audience member to bubble up a chortle or two. These are small issues in the face of the groundbreaking aspects of the film, and one could argue each of the aforementioned serve an essential purpose to the story.
When I effusively complimented this new release, a friend mentioned, “well, something had to make up for Transformers”, and she was more accurate than she could imagine. We who love movies want blockbusters, the movies that make hundreds of millions of dollars around the world, to evolve. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the tonic that proves brilliant, deep films can be made by a Hollywood major. While it is too much to hope the sun rises on a new day in Hollywood in terms of consistent quality, at very least it shows a new horizon where technology and artistry can meet to reflect brilliance by all involved. Whenever that happens movie lovers will be the better and happier for it. May it make a billion dollars.
5 out of 5 stars