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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

| July 13, 2014 | 0 Comments

Andy Serkis gets top billing in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and not without good reason. It’s possible that without his performance the movie might have been just another forgettable, big-budget Hollywood special effects prequel, but he makes the movie come alive in a way that from now on, he should no longer be dismissed as just “that CG guy.” After playing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, and the big ape in King Kong he has cemented himself as the king of The Uncanny Valley.

Serkis’ performance brings unexpected levels of emotion and conflict out of a character created out of computer generated imagery. Caesar is an ape of very few words, but his face speaks volumes. It’s an effect so beautifully done that after a while you stop trying to see the visual effect and start feeling for the character.

The performance builds on what Serkis created three years ago in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. When we met Caesar then, he was a lab monkey burning with distrust for the Homo sapiens who had caged him up in a science lab and fed him a drug to give him human intelligence. Now, 10 years later, he has grown more mature and more brooding and more thoughtful.

The story picks up 10 years after the previous film, the virus called “Simian Flu” has decimated most of the world’s human population. Man has withered down to the bare bones, while the ape society has flourished in the Muir Woods outside of San Francisco. We see Caesar as the leader of the now tribal apes who have developed a primitive society not too far removed from those at the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

There is a dividing line, however. While the apes have evolved, there is a tense but festering hatred between the ape world and the human world. Both are on tenterhooks with each other. Man lives in the ruins of the cities while ape makes his home in the woods. The drama kicks off when the humans (who live in what is left of San Francisco) discover that their supplies are depleting and the only way to keep from running out is to start up the nearby hydroelectric dam – which unfortunately is deep inside ape territory.

Misunderstanding begets misunderstanding. Man goofs up, and the ape’s mistrust grows until – horror of horrors – they discover that man has a stockpile of guns. That only scratches the surface. There’s a lot of plot in this movie, a lot of story threads to work out but the story isn’t the most interesting element. The best thing about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the level of tension that director Matt Reeves is able to maintain. The earlier scenes are the best as we can clearly feel the lines drawn between the two sides and also the conflict in Caesar’s soul as he questions his moral values. He finds himself at odds with his second-in-command, a nasty ape named Koba who is prepped for a violent conflict. The apes all seem like individuals, and despite the fact that most of them look alike, you can tell them apart.

Those are the good points. This is a problematic film in many ways. It’s too long; the message is repeated over and over; the dialogue is perfunctory, and the narrative moves uneasily back and forth between ominous dread and emotional leanings. It’s an uneasy mixture that leads to an ending that is bittersweet when it should be knocking our socks off. The great tradition of The Planet of the Apes movies going all the way back to the 1968 original is that they always end with a punch in a gut. This one closes on a note that tries to be emotional and the result is painfully awkward. Director Reeves wants to have it both ways with the emotional and the suspenseful but he has trouble juggling both at the same time. The movie is a jumbled mix of elements that work meshed with elements that do not. It’s a good movie that leaves you wishing for something a little more surefooted.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2014) Filed in: Action, Recent, Sci-Fi/Fantasty