Screened Out – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

By : Stephen Miller
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Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman

The awesome beauty of movies is that almost any idea can become a great film. This is what you get when filmmakers commit to plot, character, and theme, letting the technology bolster an already sound script. From a concept that started back in 1968 with rubber masks and histrionic acting, we come to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It’s quite wonderful. There’s almost a Shakespearean gravitas to two cultures – apes and humans – finding themselves on the verge of war, fighting for their own survivals.

Dawn is full of action and suspense. It’s also not scared to ask questions, to challenge our alliances, and build empathy for both factions. Thankfully, there is no need for irony or silliness when the script, the direction, the effects, and the acting are this strong.

When we left ape leader Caesar (Serkis) in the last film, he led his lab comrades to start a new life into the wilderness around San Francisco. Mankind was beginning to die out, succumbing to a disease they themselves created.   Now, it’s 10 years since the apes saw any people, and only 1 in every 500 humans survived, immune to the killer flu, hiding in small bands.

Andy Serkis and technology work together to bring a fully realized lead character.

Andy Serkis and technology work together to bring a fully realized lead character.

At the start of this film, Caesar and his clan have made an elaborate community in the trees. They have their own laws and schools. They also have conflicts and jealousies, problems Caesar contains with equal parts dominance and wisdom.

Now, the few straggling people of San Francisco find themselves in need of power. There’s a dam well into the apes’ territory that, if restored, could save the humans, letting them make contact with other possible survivors. Both Caesar and Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) try to negotiate peace. Problems arise because humans are scared, stockpiling weapons. The apes have within their midst angry factions looking for war, wanting to exact revenge on the humans for the experimental tortures of the labs years before.

Who could have imagined that the Apes franchise could deliver a film about struggling diplomacy, fraught with politics, fear, and pains from past mistakes?

One big advance that makes this sort of complexity possible is the technology; the computer-generated rendering of the simian characters is so detailed. One can see Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings’ Golem) behind his character Caesar’s face and movements. His is a real, conflicted character. All of the apes are so very specific. By starting the film with them, Dawn build sympathy for all of them.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

However, more than this makes Dawn worth seeing. All of the actors commit to their roles. The script is an intriguing blend of political thriller and apocalyptic action flick. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) has now successfully transitioned to big-budget storytelling, the sort of weight and carefulness that calls to mind other admired directors: Steven Spielberg, Bryan Singer, and Christopher Nolan.

Perhaps it may seem far-fetched to call this Shakespearean. However I was reminded of the political machinations of Coriolanus and the internal conflicts of Henry V. This movie has its own Iago, its own Brutus, and its own MacDuff. This is what people committed to good storytelling can achieve, even with those damned dirty apes.

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