Film critics Stephen Silver and Shawn Kotzen- movie theater power outages aside- both saw “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” and will be discussing it throughout the day on Thursday. Here’s the first part:
There’s a lot to admire about “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” but one thing above all others: It takes one major, major risk, that’s totally at odds with every convention of summer blockbusters, as well as much of its own franchise’s lineage.
The follow-up to the first-rate 2011 reboot “Rise Of The Planet of the Apes” (shouldn’t “Dawn” have been the first one and “Rise” the second?), ‘Dawn’ represents the next phase of the “Apes” origin story: It’s years later, most of the human race is dead, the super-intelligent apes are running roughshod over what’s left of the Earth, and Caesar, the ape mastermind introduced in “Rise,” is their leader.
The focus is on the battle between the apes and humans, and the film hinges on the question of whether or not the two species can coexist. The apes have set up shop at a dam north of San Francisco, which the final human remnant, set up in the Presidio, needs to restore power to the city before it’s too late.
The entire human cast of the first movie, led by James Franco, has been jettisoned, and replaced by Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell and a few others. But the lead of the film is still Caesar, played in motion capture (and more) by the great Andy Serkis. And Matt Reeves- of “Cloverfield” and “Let Me In”- is the director, stepping in for Rupert Wyatt and knocking it out of the park for the third straight time. The first movie was very, very good- but this one is even better.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”‘ greatest achievement is that it puts its audience in position to root for peace and conflict resolution, and against confrontation and war- and it does so without making itself preachy or boring. That’s just such a clear 180 from the normal MO of a summer blockbuster, and certainly applying considerably more shades of grey than did the original “Planet of the Apes” series.
There’s various shading, but for the most part the doves (human and ape alike) are the heroes and the hawks are the villains, and while we get the very-much-buttressed-by-real-life-these-days sense that hope for peace is doomed, it’s that hope that largely drives the film. There are imperfect but obvious real-life allegories all over the place, from Israel/Palestine to the Cold War to various aspects of U.S. race relations. I’m sure these are all things that will be dissected deeply in thinkpieces in the coming weeks.
But what’s so shocking is that has achieves all of this nuance while still holding up as a standout action-adventure film. There are multiple memorable action sequences, but I especially enjoyed the shootout in San Francisco, especially the long, 360-degree shot from the point of view of an ape driving a tank.
Speaking of which, all of the CGI of the apes is just incredible- we’re so, so far beyond the “Apes” films from the ’60s and ’70s, not to mention the Tim Burton version, which I’d rather just go ahead and pretend never happened. Not only did I suspend my disbelief about talking, human-like apes about five minutes after the movie started, but I’m still in awe of Andy Serkis, as Caesar. Serkis has never gotten much awards attention for this sort of part before, whether in the LOTR/Hobbit universe or this one, but now, I think, is the time.
Clarke is very good too, once again, as the leader of the “liberal” faction of the humans, and Keri Russell- in case you’re one of the vast majority of people yet to discover The Americans- has really turned out to be a hell of an actress, and she’s dynamite here, too (Reeves, I had forgotten, co-created Felicity.) The only weak link in the cast is Kodi Smit-McPhee- who was the boy in “Let Me In”- as Clarke’s son. I get that he’s playing a sad, sullen teenager, but he brings just about nothing to the table- no charisma, no presence, he’s barely even there. I also couldn’t stop noticing how much of a dead ringer he is for Nathan Fielder, from “Nathan For You.”
But let’s talk about Gary Oldman. His role is a small one- he’s only in like three or four scenes. But it’s such a perfect character arc, and so well-played by Oldman. He’s established as something of a leader, he gets to deliver a couple of rah-rah stories, we’re let in on his backstory… and then his character goes into a completely different but totally understandable direction.
The more I’ve thought about this movie the more I’ve appreciated it. And what’s exciting is, rather than with most blockbuster franchises in which I come out dreading more sequels, I’m legitimately excited for this series to continue, and go into even more unpredictable directions.
And finally… I don’t normally do this sort of thing, due to its similarity to those old Ain’t It Cool News reviews where the whole first 800 words were about what the reviewer did that day before they got to the theater. But we had kind of an interesting experience at this screening Tuesday night, as a rain storm knocked out power in the entire theater at a relatively crucial point in the movie.
It could have been worse, I suppose- the power was out for a couple of minutes, it came back on with the movie resuming after about that amount of time and then- after a 15-minute break- the projectionist was able to “rewind” the film back to where it was before the outage, and the movie ran until the end without incident. I was afraid they’d lost the satellite uplink and they were going to send everyone home, which has happened before. So all in all, good recovery, AMC Cherry Hill!
What were your thoughts? Did you read the same political implications into the film that I did? What did you think of Oldman’s performance and character? And how do you compare it to the original “Apes” series?