Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" - The summer's clear winner

First things first: as titles, "Dawn" should have come before "Rise."

But now that we've got that out of the way, I really have nothing negative to say about "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."  This movie, and its predecessor "Rise," are successfully pulling off a very neat trick.  We know how this story is going to end, so the key is making the journey interesting.  And it's not as if we're covering new territory here.  Many of my generation and older are intimately familiar with the mythology of the "Planet of the Apes."  My dad took me to see the original in 1968 (when I was 8 years old), and even though it's unlikely that my thinking at that time was sophisticated enough to fully appreciate the political statements being made in the film, there were plenty of scenes that stuck with me - when Charlton Heston first spoke in captivity, and the legendary final scene along the beach among them.

And while some of the sequels were somewhat cheesy, let's not forget the pedigree of that very first film - directed by Franklin Schaffner, who would win an Oscar for "Patton," Heston, and some all-time great character actors including Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, and James Whitmore.  Not to mention a screenplay to which Rod Serling contributed.  We're talking about a lot of talent there.  And Pierre Boulle, who wrote the novel?  Also the author of "The Bridge Over the River Kwai."  Not exactly a slouch himself.

But even with all that, it's really hard to avoid the conclusion that the 21st Century reboot of the franchise (and let's just concede that Tim Burton's attempt was a misfire) is superior in all aspects (with a minor asterisk, see below) to the original series of films.  First of all, the movie benefits from the 21st Century technology that allows actors such as Andy Serkis and Toby Kobell to play apes without having to don costumes that may have been impressive for their time, but looked less like real apes than humans dressed up in really neat Halloween costumes.  And the set design?  Part of what makes "Dawn" so impressive is how it looks - the ape compound in Muir Woods, and how San Francisco looks after the plague that has eradicated most of the human race.  If there isn't an Oscar nomination for someone in there, there's no justice.

And the story?  Undeniably powerful.  Make no bones about it, this is a tragedy.  But as in all great tragedies, even as the story unfolds towards its inexorable conclusion, and you bite your lip at the unnecessary behavior that moves it towards that point, you can understand the motivation behind the characters who would be considered the "villains" - Koba for the apes, Dreyfus for the humans.  Both have been scarred - Koba literally, at the hands of his former human tormentors; and Dreyfus, figuratively, who has lost his family as a result of the plague that for which he believes (incorrectly) that the apes were responsible.  Given what they know - the hands they have been dealt - none of their actions, even as you cringe as they are taken, are "unreasonable" from their limited points of view.

As was the case in "Rise," the central figure of "Dawn" is Caesar, the leader who eventually realizes that leadership alone is not enough to control events.  The comparisons to Michael Corleone in "The Godfather Saga" are apt - like Michael, leadership was thrust upon Caesar against his will, and like Michael he has compassion for his enemies - but only up to a certain point.  At the conclusion of "Dawn" he has recaptured his position of leadership, but now he faces a job that he never wanted to have in the first place - again, much like Michael.  Andy Serkis plays his internal conflict perfectly - he grieves for what has happened, but he is prepared to take it to its logical conclusion.  And when you attack his family, he's going to fight back.

The only asterisk?  We've yet to see a human character drawn with as much clarity as any of the apes.  The closest was probably John Lithgow in "Rise," and both Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke do the best with what they were given in "Dawn" - but that is still something to work on for the next movie.

But that too is part of what makes this series of "Planet of the Apes" films so exciting - seeing exactly how the filmmakers resolve those issues.   I just wish we didn't have to wait so long.

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