Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rohan: Great Apes, Puny Humans

(Our friend Rohan Morbey argues that the apes are the only reason to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, though that might be reason enough. We're always happy to cross-post his reviews, appearing as always over at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK; we strongly recommend that you follow Rohan on Twitter.)

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, like any prequel or movie based on a novel, suffers from inevitability. We know how it will end, but the enjoyment should come from how it gets there and how it takes the audience along on the ride. Despite some great acting and truly awe inspiring advancements in motion capture, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by the complete lack of interest the story provided. The film could have shown us so much, but delivered so little.

What do I mean by this? We know how it will all end, not just this film but any film which is made until the studio decides that the 1968 original will be the "next chapter." Dawn’s one and only task is to make the inevitable interesting. CGI and motion capture brilliance aside, Dawn tries to make an ‘epic’ (the most incorrectly used term in movie reviewing today) story out of nothing, and stretches the running time of the previous film out by another 20 minutes, yet has none of the intrigue which Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes so effortlessly combined with excitement, sadness, and a cautionary tale. In other words, Rise was the perfect big budget summer movie for those wanting more than the usual nonsense we’re given every year.

That’s not to say Dawn is complete nonsense but for all its attempts to bring a sense of Shakespearean tragedy to a $170 million movie, the human characters are as bland as any you’re likely to see, and the apes become clich├ęs of countless films we’ve seen before. As for the plot; no one is seeing Dawn for any reason other than the apes, and if you’re going to include humans then they’d better serve some higher purpose than a foe to attack. If this were human versus humans going through the same tired plot points no one would forgive it, so why should it be overlooked because of some great CGI? The scandalous lack of depth given to these humans reinforces the screenwriters’ acceptance that they are just there to act as a catalyst for the eventual battle. In Rise the humans had character, but in Dawn they are screenwriting-for-beginners plot beats, which is even worse when great actors like Gary Oldman are given nothing to do and Jason Clarke and Keri Russell are asked to carry the film. Both are fine actors, but these were thankless roles.

Furthermore, the film spends little time giving us any background on what has happened in the years since Rise, other than a mashup of news reports over the opening credits. If a decade of world shattering events is to be washed over, I’d have hoped for a far greater story than the one we get, which spans a few days and could have happened at any time in the course of those ten years. Why is it only now that humans and apes are meeting? Why are the humans stuck in San Francisco when they clearly have cars and gasoline to drive around? And what about other apes and human populations, why is nothing mentioned about these groups if ten years have passed? If the film makers want to save it for the third film, then Dawn is little more than a footnote in the series. 

What the film does well is make genuine characters of the apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Koba (Toby Kebbell). The first thirty minutes is therefore the strongest section of the film because it’s all about the apes; I really enjoyed seeing a non-human character become a father, worry about the wellbeing of his wife and discuss the challenges of fatherhood with an old friend. I also loved the thought of young apes learning to speak English in a classroom, and the community these animals have made. I could have watched an entire film of just the apes and how they have evolved since Rise, especially with the awesome special effects this film delivers. Not once in the film did I think of these apes as CG creations, and this is the movie’s overriding success, and reason enough to recommend the film.

The initial interaction between ape and human also had its moments, with Caesar trying to be a diplomat facing insubordination in the ranks from either side. But all of the nuances developed there are pushed aside for the usual big budget action ending, where apes attack the humans and it all gets very predictable and rather uninspired. Some may argue that seeing apes act like humans is the obvious evolution towards the eventual scenario this is all leading up to (the '68 original), but my point is this: when we see apes speak and act like human in the first film it’s a shock to audiences and there is a wonder and inquisitive element as to how this could possibly be, but when all those questions are answered and handed to us in a neat package, where is the sense of wonder and awe and imagination on the audience’s part? It’s all replaced by milestone incidents which are added to get from point A to B and with big budget action to hide the fact that nothing is left to the imagination anymore.

By the time the climactic set piece arrives (taking place on a skyscraper for no apparent reason), nothing looks real any longer nor was anything in the balance or remotely interesting. It was no better than any other comic book film or superhero movie and therein lies the fatal error with Dawn; it may evolve what can be done with CGI and the series’ storyline (slightly) but it devolves as storytelling. With so many options available to tell the post-Rise story, to think this was the chosen one is quite a disappointment.

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