“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” crosstalk: Silver and Kotzen, Part II

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dawn_of_the_planet_of_the_apesFilm 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. See Steve’s first part here; Shawn replies below:  

So, let me start off by saying that I have NEVER seen a “Planet of the Apes” film that was produced BEFORE Tim Burton’s 2001 debacle. This means that I’ve never had the pleasure of sitting through a movie that featured actors in full-body, monkey suits (unless you count that cameo in “Spaceballs”) in which Charlton Heston also  spouts off his famous line, “Get your paws off me you damn dirty apes!”

However, I have witnessed my fair share of clips from these cherished cult classics, but as far as making a fair comparison to the original saga and the newer batch of primate-infused tales, I’m sorry to admit that I don’t think I’d be properly qualified.

To tell you the truth, I was a bit too young to experience these gems in the theater and by the time I had discovered their existence, I was already convinced they had a campy look and feel to them — even compared to the borderline absurd special effects from some of the films I grew up watching (e.g. films like “Krull,” “Troll” and “The Ice Pirates”). Plus, I never really found the concept of a bunch of super-intelligent, talking simians that keep humans in cages while they rule the world THAT interesting.

However, when Burton’s re-imagining was released over a decade ago, I decided to give this concept a chance; due to Timmy Boy’s stellar track record, as well as (star of the film) Mark Wahlberg and his post-Diggler transformation from walking punchline to honest-to-goodness actor. Needless to say, I was quite disappointed in the final results and I don’t believe I need to get into the many reasons why.

So, when the second reboot — “Rise of the Planet of the Apes — was released in 2011, I didn’t have much hope. This was especially true since the film was being directed by relative newcomer Rupert Wyatt and also starred James Franco as a scientist! I know there are all these rumors going around that Franco is this mega-smart guy — as he’s a published author, an accomplished director, and apparently teaches Ivy League-level college courses — but I just didn’t buy him as a scientist.

But guess what… “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was actually a pretty good film that took me by surprise. So, when the inevitable sequel — “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” — was  announced, instead expecting NOTHING, I now expected big things from this upcoming new chapter. Then, when I heard that Matt Reeves (of “Cloverfield” and “Let Me In” fame) would be behind the camera, nothing less than spectacular results would be acceptable. The problem with expectations is that they’re rarely, if ever, fulfilled.

Basically, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was shaping up to be one giant letdown.

Boy was I wrong.

If “Rise…” acted like the amuse-bouche, then “Dawn…” was the delectable main course. Not only were the CGI “ape effects” significantly more impressive, the art direction of the film was awe-inspiring as well. Bringing to mind the look and feel of last year’s instant video game classic “The Last of Us,” (if you’re now snickering because you’re thinking, “How can a video game be beautiful?,” do yourself a favor, go and purchase both a PS3 AND the game and get back to me after you’ve just lost your job due to a week-long binge session) “Dawn…” picks up exactly where “Rise…” left off.

Well, kind of.

Plot-wise, it’s been a few years after the “Golden Gate Monkey Massacre” and the world is a tad different now. The “Simian Flu” brought about by ALZ-112 (the Alzheimer’s “cure” from “Rise…” that effectively managed to simultaneously make apes super-smart and kill off billions of humans.. good job James Franco) has turned the world into an apocalyptic nightmare. The film is still based in San Francisco (the site of the first film) and humans are now huddled en masse into a protective downtown skyscraper (a la George Romero’s “Land of the Dead”). As for the rebellious apes that migrated to the Redwood Forest at the end of “Rise…,” they’re still chilling in the woods. In fact, they’re so comfortable within their “Ape Family Robinson” world that they’ve never actually ventured too far away and therefore have no idea if any humans are still alive at all, since it’s been years since any ape has seen one and vice versa.

Hey apes, guess what? The human race is apparently quite hard to kill.

I liked this opening and Reeves and his team of screenwriters handled the transition between film one and film two perfectly. In fact, having just re-watched the first film, I can’t wait until this film comes out for purchase so I can view them both in succession. With this particular franchise, it’s all about the story. I believe the one trait that makes the Marvel films so appealing is their ability to feed off one another. Every film made in the last decade that spawned from the Marvel Universe fits together like one, big, glorious cinematic puzzle. That’s where George Lucas lost his “Star Wars” audience — between the first three chapters (actually Chapters IV, V and VI) and his last three films. He spaced the two trilogies out WAY too far and made the stories take place decades apart form one another. Bad move, Georgie.

In the “Apes” franchise, the story is aware of itself and focused, which makes it tangible for film goers. This is a smart decision to keep the elapsed time minimal between the two films. It means that man’s tragic outcome is THAT much fresher in the heads of the second film’s characters (which, like you stated earlier, does NOT include Franco — thank God), which makes it easier for the audience to relate to these characters’ fears and concerns regarding the somewhat mythical existence of killer apes… especially since apes were directly responsible for killing off the entire human population in the first place.

Or were they?

My favorite reoccurring theme from both films is also a very simple message. Yes, most viewers will immediately see the parallels between the onscreen violence and the never ending, real life violence in places like Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East. And yes, the whole “killer disease” aspect will not be lost on viewers either (although, I think “Contagion” tackled this better and kind of cornered the market on the “end of the world by bacteria” concept). However, I think the most obvious theme in the film is also fairly simple to comprehend and subsequently becomes the easiest to relate to.

Now, bear with me on this one.

My favorite theme is… the often-told tale of “One bad apple spoils the bunch.”

Even if you go back to “Rise…,” there’s always one character that veers away from the norm and ruins the peace and tranquility for everyone else. And THAT theme continues with “Dawn…”

Every time any headway is made in ape-human relations, someone has to spoil the mood. In fact, the film begins with Caesar, the main primate protagonist from “Rise…,” having become the leader of the outcast faction of apes who STILL live in the same place we left them at the end of film one.

By the way, I have to say that this is a bold storytelling choice in which to begin the film — focusing the narrative on the apes and not the humans. The first human doesn’t even show his face until the first fifteen minutes or so and therefore we become sympathetic towards the plight of Caesar and company WAY before we become aware that the human population is also struggling as well. In my opinion, this is a direct clue that the apes are the good guys and the humans are really the inherently evil ones. At the risk of spoiling anything, I’d say that even the worst and most devious apes have an equally devious (if not more so) parallel character on the human side of things. So, early on, when a human literally fires the “first shot” and ends up ruining the ape colony’s peaceful existence (well, save for a few fights with huge brown bears), you could say that the fault regarding the inevitable war between the two species lies on the side of the humans.

Actually, to be more specific, it’s the actions of ONE, particular, nervous human with an itchy trigger finger that is responsible. Just like the fact that humans were responsible for wiping themselves out in the first film, because if Franco’s character doesn’t create ALZ-112 then there would’ve been NO intelligent apes, NO killer super virus, and NO trace of science running rampant and killing everybody. Well, everybody EXCEPT apes, since they’e immune to the virus part of ALZ-112.

Even if you take the medical-induced death aspects of the first film, you’re still left with a group of imprisoned apes that revolt and escape captivity… due to the behavior of ONE jerky human. In this case, it’s the actions of (Draco Malfoy himself) Tom Felton, who plays sadistic sanctuary worker Dodge Landon, who is responsible for ticking off Caesar, Maurice, Rocket, that huge scary gorilla, and the rest of the imprisoned apes to the point that they have no choice but to break-out of their cages and go on a rampage on their way to freedom.

In addition to the first shot-firing human (played by Kirk Acevedo — one of my favorite character actors), there are a plethora of bad guys for whom to blame for the big giant battle (that Steve already mentioned) which occurs in the third act of “Dawn…” Again, I don’t want to spoil anything for for you, so I won’t mention the names of these specific antagonists, but just be wary that both humans AND apes play an equally significant part in causing the carnage and mayhem at the end of the film. That being said, I will say that ALL of these characters fall into my “One bad apple…” theory. So, I know it sounds strange, but I guess the primary theme of “Dawn…” could be an anti-bullying message.

I told you to bear with me.

With all its impressive special effects (you’re absolutely correct, Andy Serkis is at the top of his mo-cap game as Caesar in this go-round AND the monkeys also look aesthetically brilliant and totally lifelike), unconventional storytelling tactics, AND hidden allegories, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” should be the perfect summer blockbuster.

Well, that’s almost the case.

As far as I’m concerned, the moment where “Dawn…” STARTED to really interest viewers and capture their attention was the moment it officially started to LOSE me. There was so much wonderful buildup and character-rich narrative in the first two acts (however, the pace did slow down to a semi-crawl for a few minutes at about the half-hour mark) that the decision to end it with a prototypical, third act battle segment was an uninspired and lackluster choice by the filmmakers. By the time the you-know-what finally hits the fan (the monkey… it was the monkey that flung the poo), I was expecting a unique and (pardon my French) ballsy way to tie everything together. So when the action took a familiar (and unacceptable) turn, I was pouting in my popcorn while those around me were clapping with glee.

I will agree this section of the film was done with first-rate technical proficiency by Reeves and company (I too liked the 360-degree, monkey-on-the-tank gag), but I feel like I’ve seen it all before. And when so much time and effort went into creating a unique identity for the film during the first two acts, the standard sequences of the dreaded, action-packed third-act was nothing short of a letdown for me. I would’ve liked to see peace actually be achieved for a change, instead of the onscreen characters only referring to it. I thought it was extremely brave for a summer “action” flick to attempt to renounce and abstain from war and I applaud the film for achieving this for as long as it did, but it just didn’t last.

I mean, at the risk of sounding cliche myself — can’t we all just get along?

In addition to Serkis, I also agree with you in terms of Jason Clarke and Keri Russell. Although neither of them are A-listers (like… say… James Franco) they more than held their own in a film where they were FAR FROM the focal point of ANY scene. In fact, the humans were little more than set pieces during EVERY scene that involved one ape, two apes or multiple apes. A lot of the credit for the monkeys stealing the show goes to Serkis and his ability (ever since his performance as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” movies) to keep the audience fixated on every move he makes. Unfortunately, like you said, some actors were more akin to set dressing than others and Kodi Smit-McPhee was definitely (and unfortunately) one of them.

Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Dreyfus,  as the confused, tragedy-stricken, politician-like leader of the humans, will be the most talked about AND polarizing performance of the film. Either you’ll love him OR absolutely hate him (I mean his acting, not the character), as more than a few people around me involuntarily chuckled during his big “crying” scene. The fact is, Oldman’s never been known for his subtlety (see: “Dracula,” “Leon: The Professional,” “The Fifth Element,” etc.), so it’s not exactly a surprise that he takes it to the proverbial “next level.” I, on the other hand, didn’t hate Oldman in this movie, I just didn’t like him… until the third act, that is. So, at least SOMETHING positive came out of the last thirty minutes for me.

One thing’s for sure. At least we know we’re getting a sequel… and I’m pretty confident that Tim Burton will NOT be asked to contribute again.

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