FRESH POUR: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal. 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apesdawn of the planet of the apes
dir. Matt Reeves

20th Century Fox

When Rise of the Planet of the Apes was released in 2011, it heralded a surprising return of the sensitive, thought-provoking 1970s speculative sci-fi drama. A combination of touching family story and genetic-engineering polemic, Rise managed to create the latest (and arguably greatest) vehicle for mo-cap wunderkind Andy Serkis and be a solid drama in its own right. With this year’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (or DOTPOTA), this tradition continues in fine form, resulting in a fantastically entertaining and surprisingly touching post-apocalyptic film that succeeds in its focus on character and complexity.

Taking place approximately ten years after Rise, Dawn sees the world largely devoid of humans, its industrial centers covered in the typical post-apocalyptic overgrowth. The conflict centers around two camps – one human and one ape – that find themselves living relatively close together. While the apes (led by Caesar, the ape leader from the first film) are rapidly evolving and forming their own social structures and relationships, the humans are tired, fearful, and desperate to find new power before theirs runs out. Eventually, the two groups form a fragile peace due to the help of a peace-seeking human family (led by Jason Clarke and Keri Russell), but mistrust, infighting, and a general fear over the futures of their respective societies soon bring these conflicts to a head.

When it comes to the Golden Age-era simplicity of the film’s speculative conflicts, Dawn is about as straightforward and on-the-nose as a Twilight Zone episode – you see, it’s about national conflicts and the warlike nature of man! – but Reeves directs the film with an earnestness that is refreshing for a film of this type nowadays. It’s almost an anti-style, letting directorial flair (a few choice glamour shots aside) take a backseat to a straight-on, theatrical depiction of the film’s conflicts that evinces George Miller’s Mad Max series or the later installments of the original Apes films. Giacchino’s exciting but whimsical score makes sure we never take ourselves too seriously, with a jaunty, xylophone and woodwind-centric score making some of the ape-climbing scenes positively carnivalesque.

What impresses most, of course, is the attention-grabbing and thoroughly detailed CGI that brings these ape characters to life, combined with stellar, nuanced performances from the ape actors, even apart from Serkis. The film begins (and ends) wonderfully with the same shot of Andy Serkis’ Caesar staring straight into the camera at extreme close-up, almost as if to dare you to scrutinize his own realness. Just as the human characters struggle with how seriously to take the apes or regard them as sentient beings and individuals, the audience must go on that journey to believing them as characters. Somehow, 15 years after Jar Jar Binks, 10 years after Gollum and 5 years after the Na’Vi of Avatar, we still need to marvel at the level of fidelity that some of the best all-CG characters can convey on the screen, and these films are no exception. Perhaps it is because the apes are not made-up space creatures or fantasy trolls, but realistic simulations of real animals, that we are so fascinated by the uncanniness with which they are manifested.

In my audience in particular, much of the ape action, however serious or comedic, was almost always met with at least some giggling. To be sure, many moments in the film are darkly comic (including a wonderful pair of scenes where Koba plays ‘dumb monkey’ to get two human guards to let their, well, guard down), but even the act of these CGI apes playing out their Shakespearean interspecies conflict elicited this odd reaction in my fellow theatergoer. It was basically a combination of ‘I feel I should laugh, because I know apes are inherently funny’ and that kind of nervous chuckle you give when you are affected by something dramatic, but don’t quote know how to process it. The fact that this film in particular is able to wring so much genuine pathos out of these CGI creatures, especially ones modeled after creatures we normally giggle at for being so cute, is a wonderful continuation of the thing that worked so well in Rise.

While the conflicts themselves are remarkably standard and unsurprising (the extent of the ape uprising’s  success aside), what anchors the story are the smaller moments between ape and ape, ape and human, and even human and human. The level of parallelism between the ape and human stories borders on being too much – almost every ape character has a human counterpart, and vice versa – but this level of sameness just serves to underline the essential nature of these conflicts. Malcolm (Clarke) and Caesar both want to make a safer world for their family, Koba and Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus are angry about the emotional wounds they’ve suffered from their enemies, and both groups basically want to return to a time before they’d never met each other. Reeves’ ability to connect both the emotional and political facets of these issues is part of the film’s immense effectiveness. (Also, the irony of a character named Caesar being betrayed and attacked by their second-in-command is not lost on me – et tu, Koba?)

Dawn never really asks particularly challenging questions, and its didacticism prevents it from being truly challenging beyond a what if they’re just like us? kind of way. (The jumbled, overwrought final action throwdown setpiece is also a step too far into Spider-Man territory for what is mostly a talky sci-fi drama.) Despite these niggling negatives, the film still serves as a great throwback to the ambitious sci-fi tales of decades past. We haven’t gotten one of these ambitious, high-concept films in awhile that wasn’t dripping with self-aware irony, so seeing something just this goddamn straight-faced in presentation is very, very welcome. While questions of whether or not Caesar’s incredible portrayal is chiefly the work of Serkis/the CG animators/a combination of both are too complicated to truly be answered yet, what we can do is revel in the majesty of what has been created.

Clint’s Verdict: Loved It!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Movie Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever an ape says the word ‘ape’
2) Drink anytime a gun is pointed at someone, only to lower it
3) Drink every time Keri Russell shouts “MALCOLM!”
Finish Your Drink When:
Caesar (Andy Serkis) says, “I thought ape better than human…but ape and human not so different.”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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