When Humanity Dies - A Review of Dawn Of The Planet Of The ApesWritten by Scott Powhatan Collins
Now, while I enjoyed them, I was still not entirely taken with the films. However, I was absolutely fascinated by not only their level of extreme violence for films that were surprisingly rated G but also their relentless sense of bleak nihilism. I mean--the second film in the series, Director Ted Post's "Beneath The Planet Of The Apes" (1970) concluded with the complete nuclear destruction of Earth and a dark voice over intoning the following statement: "In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium sized star and one of its satellites, a green insignificant planet is now dead." Now that's entertainment.
What I suppose fascinated me the most from those five films was their collective sense of allegory, which felt blindingly obvious to me in the late 1990's, yet I wondered how audiences felt when the films were originally released. All of the social/political issues of the day are all there in the original series, including, but not limited to, the environment, the ecology, the futility of war and subjugation of others, genocide and so on. The series' fourth film, Director J. Lee Thompson's "Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes" (1972) was of intensely special interest to me as that film detailed Caeser's (memorably portrayed by Roddy McDowell) emancipation and his leadership during the eventual ape uprising, something that obviously was designed to be an allegory to the Civil Rights/Black Power movement. One white male character, frothing at the mouth at the sight of apes brandishing artillery, practically screeches, "They're ARMED...." To which, his appropriately African-American compatriot, sagely responds, "And they're organized."
All of those particular memories came flooding back to me inevitably as I walked into the theater for a screening of Director Matt Reeves "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes," the sequel to Director Rupert Wyatt's surprisingly effective "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes" (2011), itself a full bodied reboot from the original quintet as well as Director Tim Burton's big budget misfire from 2001.
I have long expressed to you about my fatigue with all manner of sequels, reboots and re-imaginings but as for 2014, I have been tremendously surprised and wholly satisfied with Director Anthony and Joe Russo's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" as well as Writer/Director Dean DeBlois' spectacular sequel, "How To Train Your Dragon 2." As with those two titles, Reeves has taken the groundwork laid for him in the previous "Apes" film and crafted a second installment that widens the canvas into a deeper, tougher, richer, bleaker, even more provocative and darkly resonant experience that powerfully speaks to the core of our current war driven culture, the politics of fear and our dismally entrenched attitudes with prejudice and racism towards anyone who happens to not look exactly the same as ourselves. It is a film that probes more powerfully than it has any reason to and because of that attention to ideas over bombast, "Dawn Of The Planet of The Apes" makes for one of the most riveting films of the year.
"Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" begins ten years after the events of the previous film, when a worldwide pandemic virus has all but annihilated human beings save for a genetically immune few now housed within the compounds underneath a guarded tower in a dilapidated San Francisco. Meanwhile, deep in the Muir Woods, Caesar (brilliantly portrayed again by Andy Serkis) is leader to a new generation of apes plus longtime brethren, the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and his second in command, the vitriolic Koba (Toby Kebbell), who rightfully harbors an unrepentant grudge against all humans due to his mistreatment by being imprisoned as a laboratory test subject for most of his life.
As the film opens, the apes are surprised by the presence of a human being near their confines, especially as they have not seen humans for a decade. In fright, the human, named Carver (played by Kirk Acevedo), shoots and wounds a young ape named Ash (performed by Doc Shaw), prompting a near confrontation between the apes and a band of the San Francisco humans, featuring Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the nurse Ellie (Keri Russell) and Malcolm's son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Caesar, granting mercy, orders the group of humans to return to their dwellings and never return, and in good faith, the apes will also remain in the woods, thus war between the species will not become imminent.
The plot thickens as Malcolm, much to the chagrin of his distrustful partner Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), makes a return pilgrimage to the ape colony with the hopes that Caesar will allow him access to a hydroelectric dam, which resides in the apes territory and could possibly provide long term power to the human colony. With trepidation, Caesar agrees to Malcolm's request. Soon, and very slowly, Caesar begins to forge a tentative friendship with Malcolm, much to Koba's intense distaste, which soon leads him to plot against Caesar for leadership over the apes, a desire that may begin to unravel into war.
With "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes," Matt Reeves attempts a creative approach similar to that of what Christopher Nolan achieved with his revitalization and revolutionary take on Batman with his "Dark Knight" trilogy or even what we have seen with the film adaptations of "The Hunger Games" series. While it doesn't scale those artistic heights on quite that towering level, what Reeves brings to the table is a sense of grave realism. Gone from this "Apes" feature are any sense of camp or comic book styled frenzy and to that end, talking apes notwithstanding, even any sense of science fiction fantasy, so to speak. Reeves plays all of the events and situations as matter of fact as possible, as if these events are happening for real.
To assist with this element of striking realism, I have to take this time to not only spotlight the sensationally grim look of the film courtesy of veteran Cinematographer Michael Seresin but most importantly, the sumptuous photo realistic CGI/motion capture special effects, which are so sensational and seamless that you will often question if you are looking at real apes as opposed to manufactured ones. In fact, the apes within this film reminded me considerably more of the type we saw in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). In "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes," Reeves wisely juxtaposes the ape society with the human survivor society, allowing us to compare and contrast any similarities and differences between the two in an organic fashion. I loved how Reeves took considerable time with establishing the rules, laws, codes, hierarchies and beliefs of each culture, and especially for the apes, even matters of language. All of this information worked tremendously well in serving and informing the characters that populate each specific world, thus effectively laying the groundwork for the tragedy that slowly and then explosively unfolds to devastating effect.
Andy Serkis deserves every single stitch of praise that has already, and will continue to be rightfully hurled his way based upon his performance as Caesar. Serkis has proven himself to be one of the finest actors working today as his motion capture performances have pioneered the very best that this particular technology has to offer. He possesses the physicality and the voice certainly, yet to give Caesar the fullness of life and the weight of his pathos, giving all of the special effects the broadness and heft of an existential soul, it's all in the eyes, and Serkis' eyes will make you catch your breath as they are so riveting to behold. In fact, I felt it to be a masterstroke on Reeves' part that he opens and closes his film with tight close up shots of Caesar's eyes which convey seismically different emotions as based upon the occurrences within the story.
Additionally, and as outstanding as Serkis is, he is superbly aided by all of the other actors within the film; from the ones who also portray the apes (most notably Toby Kebbell as Koba, who brings a malevolent Shakespearian heft to his scenes with Serkis), as well as the actors who portray the human characters and have to make us in the audience believe that what we are seeing is undoubtedly happening. These are all performances worthy of awards season recognition and if Andy Serkis is not recognized in some appropriately conceivable way, then there just may need to be an uprising against the Academy.
Most of all, "Dawn of The Planet Of The Apes" is a lament for our collective inability to see past the differences of others and how we always drown ourselves in some manner of conflict and destruction, whether interpersonal, local or global. Reeves constructs his film as a requiem and it was interesting that for a film that begins with an apocalypse due to an outbreak, Reeves and his screenwriters seem to be suggesting the real apocalypse is what we are witnessing throughout the film. We see the step-by-step tenuous friendship and peaceful truce between humans and apes slowly grow and then completely fall apart, leading both sides into an inter-species war and Reeves perceptively illustrates how much of that war is based upon nothing more than fear.
It is interesting and painfully recognizable to see how the apes and humans will easily turn upon themselves as certain characters attempt to enact and maintain a certain societal status quo plus succumb to their deepest personal fears, prejudices and desires for power and control, leading to several sequences that contain honest shock due to their brutality. And therein lies the allegory, for how can anyone watch this film and not make connection to nearly everything we can see on the news or within our own communities. We are tearing ourselves apart, which allows "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" to serve as a profound warning that we just may be the architects of our own downfall if we are unable, and therefore unwilling, to get ourselves together.
Even with all of that high praise, "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" did contain a couple of minor failings, in my opinion. If there are any slight dings I could mention I would say that as beautifully designed and realized as the apes are, I did have some trouble from time to time identifying one from another, which made for a little difficulty connecting with the characters at first. And as for the humans, and with no offense given to her, Keri Russell is not terribly essential to what transpires as her role is just yet another one of those sadly underwritten parts that women are typically saddled with portraying, especially in big budget excursions like this film.
But, aside from those two criticisms being said, Matt Reeves "Dawn Of the Planet Of The Apes" is a powerful antidote to the lumbering, brainless box office behemoths that are barreling through our theaters like a battering ram. It is a sobering, mournful experience that probes the the dark corners of humanity's weaknesses with a brutal elegance. This is a film that wants for us to think as well as be awed by the visual spectacle for if we cannot recognize ourselves within Caesar, his allies and enemies, then shame on us.
"Dawn of The Planet Of The Apes" is a funereal march which places us all on the road to extinction.
Scott Powhatan Collins was born and raised in Chicago, IL and is a current resident of Madison, WI .He is a lifelong enthusiast of music, books and films. Hisbrain is filled with DJ dreams, filmmaking fantasies, literary luxuries and all manner of useless information. He chronicles his thoughts and reviews on his two blog sites Synesthesia (http://www savagejukebox.blogspot.co.uk) and Savage Cinema (http://wwwspcsavage.blogspot.co.uk), and is always on the lookout for the next piece of art to blow his mind and capture his heart.
© Words Scott Powhatan Collins