Film: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Stars: Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell
Director: Matt Reeves
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Visual Effects)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars
I don’t always catch a film during the height of its popularity. Whether it’s a friend cancelling on you (totally the case here) or because I cannot afford the film that week (the case most of the time) or simply because I didn’t have an interest in the film initially and then was convinced to go later, I find that there are the rare summer flicks that I head out to a few weeks after they are released. That was the case with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which assuredly most of you have already gone to and have parceled through and formed your opinions toward. However, forgive me my tardiness and let me belatedly join the discussion.
(Spoilers Ahead) Three years ago when the first film in the revival came out, I was kind of flummoxed. Why was a film this good being tagged onto a series that included a truly awful recent revival? It was like Edward Norton’s Hulk film, except superb. The movie, with some wonderfully inventive stop-motion effects and a powerhouse performance by Andy Serkis, surprised audiences by being a deep, fascinating look at the hubris of man paired with a wonderful action sequence at the tail end of the film. We pick up about a decade after those events in Dawn, when a Simian flu has swept the planet, killing off billions and leaving the human race in a state of abject decay. Meanwhile, the apes who raided San Francisco now number into the thousands and continue to advance with both their language and cognitive skills.
The film is at its best when it is tracking the dawning of different, difficult civilization-building happenings amongst the apes. Andy Serkis returns as Caesar, and again gives a brilliant performance (people who think animated performance should get their own category at the Oscars are crazy, but that doesn’t mean that Serkis himself couldn’t get a deserved “Honorary Oscar” if the Academy is in the mood considering his pioneering work in stop-motion over the past dozen years). I love the way that his character seems trapped by his advancement-how he learns the truth about others too quickly and realizes too swiftly how conformity of opinion is impossible to maintain, even if that opinion is “the right one.”
That’s really when the film is at its most fascinating-when it is tackling hard issues such as betrayal and diverging thoughts on government. The relationship between Caesar and one of his top lieutenants (Koba) is Shakespearean in element, and works well because both creatures are coming into their own knowledge about the world. We see in this film the pointlessness of war (it says something that the director maintains a pretty solid amount of sympathy for both sides, and that we get to see that both sides are going to war more out of fear than out of any specific reason), and we see how something as pointless as prejudice is the catalyst of such violence. The film is a technical marvel, and it says something about both the effects team and the writing/acting skills of all those involved that Koba brandishing a machine gun doesn’t strike us as a ridiculous or comic visual, but instead a terrifying one.
My principle problem with the film remains the way that the writers cannot seem to make the human characters interesting. This wouldn’t bother me so much, but the human characters take up a large chunk of the film. This was the main problem with the last film, but here we are more reliant on the human characters to carry the story. Jason Clarke’s Malcolm is haunted by cinematic clichés (dead wife, in love with a wounded woman, estranged and artistic son), and isn’t given enough to do to really overcome his role as a mirror to Caesar. He isn’t actively bad in his part, though, as Gary Oldman unfortunately is. I don’t know if Oldman was just confused as to whether he was a villain or not (I know I sure was), but his character is far too underwritten and Oldman does it no favors by acting as if he’s Commissioner Gordon in some scenes and a mad scientist on the brink of discovering an apocalyptic drug in others. Either way this is the worst part of the film, and that’s a rare sentence to write about such a usually brilliant performer.