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‘Planet of the Apes’ A New Dawn for Blockbuster Movies?

by on July 17, 2014

It’s not hard to screw up a sci-fi movie with a slightly outlandish conceit. Really, it’s not.

And I’ve talked to several people who instantly discount the “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” because of the perception it gives off:

  • “It has apes with machine guns? Riding on horses? That sounds dumb.”
  • “You’re telling me they talk?”
  • “Yeah, that’s not really my thing.”

I understand that for us humans, anything that involves (1) us losing, (2) us losing to animals, and/or (3) us losing to talking animals can drive us away pretty quickly.

I mean, how could you say no to this face?

But you can’t disregard movies just because they sound weird.

And you can’t disregard animals just because they don’t walk and talk like we do. Just because they are different.

As “Dawn” is so keen on reminding us, we are just an iPad and a roof over our heads away from being animals ourselves. It seems insistent on asking us if we’re really so sure about which team we should be rooting for in the first place.

The ape characters, from leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) to son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) to war-mongering Koba (Toby Kebbell), are fantastically complex and beautifully developed characters. You understand why Caesar wants to give the humans a chance. You understand Blue Eyes’ teenage confusion and rebellion. You understand why Koba can never forgive the species who tortured him.

The humans, on the other hand, are somewhat largely (and perhaps intentionally) underwritten. Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman and Co. do a good enough job to get you to understand their motivations and situations,* but for the most part it is clear that understanding the apes is more important to the movie’s success.

*Russell, in particular, seemed to add a layer of empathy and understanding to her character that clearly was not on the page.

Not only do you find yourself rooting actively for the apes’ well-being, you also find that you want nothing more than for war to be avoided at all costs. It feels like a depressing inevitability, not a necessity.

But the most impressive thing about this movie is the way it drops you into a fully developed world. From the moment director Matt Reeves orchestrates a majestic wide-shot of the apes’ tree compound, you feel a part of it. In a way that is proving difficult for me to describe, the world of “Dawn” feels like an alternate reality, like an actual place that could exist.

And although the fight scenes in “Dawn” feel scarce compared to most summer blockbusters, this movie really earns them. Some movies (like “Man of Steel”, or most Marvel movies) seem to let the creatives do their thing with the “talking” scenes before reeling them in to make sure that there is at least an hour of boring, apocalyptic destruction. This movie uses the “talking” scenes to ensure that your heart will break when the action does come around. Instead of anticipating it, you dread it.

While there’s something admirable about the black-and-white binary of good versus evil portrayed in superhero movies, there’s something much more piercing in a movie like “Dawn.” It’s not simply good versus evil, because nothing in real life is. It’s complicated, and it’s messy.

And while its biggest flaw may be a complete lack of any real levity, “Dawn” approaches life in such a real, heartfelt way that it never really feels too dark. When Keri Russell laughs and smiles as a baby ape jumps into her arms, it feels like the first time she has truly laughed and smiled in years.

[SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH]

And that’s why the ending was so heartbreaking. Obviously, you know that the movie is called “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, so you should expect that the apes will eventually win the war. This doesn’t cheapen the final moment of understanding and respect between Malcolm and Caesar, though. Rather, it deepens it. This was a movie about trying to stop a war, and some good people and good apes tried. But at a certain point, it became unavoidable. While the movie may not be a huge fan of the Second Amendment, that’s almost beside the point. If we can’t learn to respect and live alongside those who are different than us, what chance do we have?

[END OF SPOILERS]

The most exciting thing about “Dawn” is that people have gone to see it. It made about $72.6 million during its opening weekend. Maybe, in a year where the box office has struggled, movie executives can see the success of a smart, well-made summer movie like “Dawn” and understand that you don’t have to blow up New York City for two and a half hours to make money.

Long live Caesar.

Rating: 8/10

Is there a scene after the credits? No. If you enjoy the great music of “Dawn”, feel free to stick around, but there is no more action to be found following the credits. There are several ape noises toward the very end of the credits that are interesting (and in my opinion, reminding us that the apes will run this world before too long) but nothing that will change your perception of the movie all that much.

Have you seen “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”? If you have, how did you feel about the sequel? If not, are you considering checking it out?

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From → Movie Reviews

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