Friday, 8 August 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

Directed by: Matt Reeves

Produced by: Peter Chernin
Dylan Clark
Rick Jaffa
Amanda Silver

Screenplay by: Mark Bomback
Rick Jaffa
Amanda Silver

Based on: Characters created by
Rick Jaffa
Amanda Silver
Suggested by Planet Of The Apes by Pierre Boulle

Starring: Andy Serkis
Jason Clarke
Gary Oldman
Keri Russell
Toby Kebbell
Kodi Smit-McPhee

Music by: Michael Giacchino

Cinematography by: Michael Seresin

Editing by: William Hoy
Stan Salfas

Studio(s): Chernin Entertainment
TSG Entertainment

Distributed by: 20th Century Fox

Release date(s): July 11, 2014 (United States)
July 17, 2014 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 131 minutes

Country: United States

Language(s): English
American Sign Language

Production budget: $170 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $451, 633, 624

So, with things back in action, I'm going to keep the ball rolling on this bad boy. On an outside of topic note, currently New Japan Pro Wrestling's annual G1 Climax tournament is going on, and I'd urge anyway who's into wrestling in any shape or form to follow it, because frankly, much as I like WWE's product, I've been more interested in NJPW's output of late. With that being said, this is a movie blog, so, bringing out the usual mantra (drumroll, please!), for all the latest and greatest in the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Today's movie up for review is Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, the eight film in 20th Century Fox's Planet Of The Apes franchise and sequel to 2011's reboot Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. Like the Transformers franchise, I have a bit of history with that of the Planet Of The Apes, albeit on far more positive notes than the former. The original film from 1968, based on Pierre Boulle's novel of the same name, is a bona-fide science-fiction classic, a startling depiction of a world turned upside down which, like George A. Romero's Night Of The Living Dead, released the same year, used the genre film format for allegorical means to challenge prevalent ongoing societal issues. The tone is much the same for the film's four sequels, with varying results and quality. Beneath is a very strange and bizarre film which, though decent, doesn't quite nail it the same way the original did, while Escape is a lot more satirical in form, transplanting Zira, Cornelius and Dr. Milo to present day Los Angeles. The sequels hit their darkest and highest point with Conquest, a truly nightmarishly dystopian vision of racial conflict and slavery, but finished on a bum note with Battle, the only film in the series which is truly flat and uninspired. Toys, television series, and twenty-eight years later, Tim Burton's Planet Of The Apes hit the big screens, and while making no dent on the original film, is admirable in it's own way and a whole lot better than people care to remember. Ten years and a lot of technological advances in the film industry later, another film came round in the guise of Rupert Wyatt's Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. Now, I was the first to start groaning about motion capture and visual effects replacing the traditional make-up designs originated by John Chambers which were such a key part to the series. However, Weta Digital done a terrific job, accentuating the powerful central performance by Andy Serkis (for which he won in 2011 my Kevin Space Award for Best Male Actor in a Leading Role) in the part of Caesar. More so than The Lord Of The Rings, King Kong and Avatar (all done by Weta), Rise made me believe in the power of motion capture technology, with the central protagonist, a non-human ape, being fully understandable and emotionally engaging. Not only that, it was a thought-provoking film with the socio-political commentaries of the original series, and with it's performance at the box-office, successfully rebooted the Apes franchise. Which brings us now to Dawn, so here we go with the story: the ALZ-113 virus has caused the collapse of human civilisation. Ten years after Rise, there is a group of genetically immune humans living in San Francisco, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). One of their other leaders Malcolm (Jason Clarke) encounters a group of apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), who have created an entire community and new generation in the Muir Woods. When one of the apes is shot by Carver (Kirk Acevedo), tensions are created between the apes and man. After retreating, Malcolm leads an expedition to reconcile with the apes in order to gain access to a hydroelectric dam which would restore power to their territory. However, Koba (Toby Kebbell), a bonobo who in the past suffered torture at the hands of humans, bears a grudge after the shooting, and threatens to channel violent dissent against Caesar to lead the apes to war against the humans. Got it? Good!

Starting off with the good, I have to lavish much praise on the interaction between the motion capture acting and the visual effects. Once again, Weta have outdone themselves. With Rise they succeeded in managing to make a non-anthropomorthised character the centre of a picture and have him be completely understandable and engaging. Here, we have a whole society of non-anthropomorthised apes realised with the wondrous harmony of motion capture and visual effects. Andy Serkis is simply terrific again in the part of Caesar. This time round, Serkis does a mighty job of juggling a troubled Caesar who is on the one hand torn between the independence he wishes for his ape compatriots but also his undying love for humanity. His wide range of expressiveness is simply extraordinary, getting across all of the character's internal conflicts, pains and anxieties across with tangible poignancy. The other great performance in the film belongs to Toby Kebbell as Koba. I've made no bones in the past about my fondness for Kebbell and his wide versatility of roles, but this is a tone from his palette we haven't quite seen before. Koba is one bad ape, conspiring in all manners (including getting the ear of Blue Eyes, Caesar's son), but Kebbell is intelligent enough to not let this be simply a two-dimensional villain. Instead, Kebbell portrays Koba's venom towards humans as based on deeply-ingrained trauma. While at times Koba managed to inspire my hate for his actions, Kebbell makes us understand that there's more to this than simple 'ape-good, human-bad' logic. For my money, this is the best performance of a franchise villain since Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva in Skyfall, and for that Kebbell and the effects teams should be commended. Speaking of harmony and visual effects, it seemed to me that just about every other technical department involved with the film worked well with it. The cinematography by Michael Seresin is another strong part of the tapestry. Capturing all of the visual effects in their splendour, it takes an intelligent cinematographer to also ensure that this remains something we can buy into. It's also one of the few Apes movies since the first where the cinematographer plays an active part in telling the story. In the apes' charging of the tower, one of best action sequences I can recall seeing over the past few years, the absolute chaos and wanton destruction sees Seresin do some very interesting things with the camera, including a long-shot of Koba taking over a tank which is a truly amazing bit of work. Editing-wise too, this is a remarkable achievement. It's amazing to think of all the work hours that must have went into the digital composites to make all the images, both real and effects-created, all appear as part of one seamless frame, much less a two-hour feature film. From the story's perspective, the script takes a number of bold and rather daring moves, but in the end I think that it works out. Much of the dialogue(s) between the apes is in American Sign Language, which is made understandable to us non-acquanted viewers by way of subtitles. Knowing there is a general wariness regarding subtitles, it could have went either way. Also, although Caesar was the protagonist of Rise, there were many human characters surrounding him for an audience to sympathise with. Although there are humans here, what we are asked to do is to embrace an entire society of apes, and the screenwriter's more than rewarded me that investment. The story of the apes in Dawn is thoroughly engaging, full of twists and unexpected turns, and makes it feel like a genuine epic in and of itself, much less how it fits into the larger scheme of the franchise. Mark Kermode mentioned recently in his review for Transformers: Age Of Extinction that 'epic' is not a default status that comes with a gut-busting running time: epic denotes not only a certain level of scope, size and scale, but it only feels 'epic' if we have a strong level of emotional investment in the characters. Here, we certainly do. Ty Burr of the Boston Globe referred to Caesar's plight "Shakespearean grandeur," a not unfair comparison, as I do feel that the film parallels Shakespeare the same way The Lion King did Greek tragedy and Hamlet, using allegory and metaphor to great effect. I had a high level of emotional involvement throughout much of the film, and part of that is thanks to strong screenwriting. Another welcome addition to Dawn is series newbie Michael Giacchino, who gives us one of his better scores of recent years. Don't get me wrong, I like Giacchino, always have done, but there've been times where his scores, very much of the classical film scoring school, go too far over onto the other side and end up being The Honking Histrionics and/or Emotional Heartstring Orchestra. Like any good score, what Giacchino does here refuses to overtake the drama, instead accentuating it and elevating it towards greater heights. There are echoes of the old Jerry Goldsmith score with the use of some offbeat tribal instrumentals, which, along with a vocal chorus line, make for an eerie atmosphere of tension and mystery. Also, when the proverbial shit hits the fan, Giacchino is more than able to rack things to eleven, hammering in the carnage onscreen and when the mood is needing to be muted, he's brings it down to a state of minimalist melancholia. Another thing I'd like to praise about Dawn is the overall design of the film. Much attention has been lavished (rightly) on the incredible visual effects, but I think that other departments deserve credit. The budget for this film has been increased by $80 million over that of Rise, and they don't half spend it on creating a suitably post-apocalyptic landscape. Everything in an area approaching urbanity has an aged look about, with weeds, ivy and various flora and fauna growing all over the place, cracks in the walls, ugly tones in the paintwork. The only place that seems to flourish is 'Ape City,' which the apes have made out to be their own sort-of woodland utopia, not that we'd recognise it as utopian, but you get the picture. The overall design of the piece seems to cater towards giving it a whole primal atmosphere, in keeping almost with a Gaian template of nature fighting back against man's crimes against Mother Earth, reaping what they have sowed. Finally, I would like to praise director Matt Reeves for what he brings to the film. While I think Rupert Wyatt did a great job with Rise and certainly deserves credit for laying out the groundwork, I think Reeves has brought to Dawn a greater sense of immediacy and prescience. One does have to wonder could Wyatt have done for Apes what Nolan did for Batman, but Reeves' work on Dawn, while a collaborative effort, is the best of his career (and I'm including his terrific debut feature Cloverfield in that sweeping statement!). I was gripped and emotionally engaged throughout Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, a film whose two-hour run time flies by like the wind, and is, for my money, the best so far of this year's summer blockbusters. 

Now, as you can tell by the amount of space and words I have spent gushing over it, I loved Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and think that it is a great movie. However, it is not a masterpiece, and unfortunately I have to get down to the nitty finer points which hinder it from being so. The first of these niggles lies in the fact that once again I am more interested and invested in the story of the apes over the human story, as opposed to being equally interested in each. As such, while I think that Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman bring suitable credibility to their parts (nice to see Clarke in a major blockbuster, and Oldman has a short standout scene halfway through the film), I feel that once again this side of things is underwritten. When tensions rise and the apes have Koba leading the paranoia front, his human equivalent in Carver is a two-dimensional trope that lacks the development you'd expect, especially noticeable when there is a rich cast of memorable characters among the apes. This is just one example out of about four or five underdeveloped characters who exist merely as face within the wider scheme of things. As such, this also has implications with the way in which the film's story is told, especially in the editing suite. Towards the climax of the film, without giving anything away, the plot moves with two separate arcs being told at the same time, so the montage cuts back and forth between one arc and another. Frankly, because of the developments (or lack thereof) earlier and throughout the course of the film, I wound up getting slightly cross any time it cut away from the arc I was more interested in. It was like that situation with the boats in The Dark Knight: I just wanted to see Batman and The Joker duke it out and couldn't care less whether or not the human fodder got blown up or not!

Anyway, while I have my reservations about the film in some regards (which did require that space to explain, incidentally), such the underdeveloped human characters and a number of different issues with the montage storytelling aesthetics, I do think that Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is right now the best blockbuster of the summer. The harmony between the motion capture acting (particularly Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell) and the visual effects is breathtaking, with Weta Digital really outdoing themselves in bringing these apes to life. The visual effects also interact well with the terrific cinematography of Michael Seresin, whose work alongside the composite departments must be duly credited. It's a legitimate franchise epic, with some daring and provocative screenwriting ideas, bolstered up by Michael Giacchino's score. Design-wise, it's beautifully realised, and Matt Reeves has delivered his best directorial film to date. I don't think any film has quite reached the heights of the original 1968 Planet Of The Apes, but in my estimation this is as close as we've got so far, and I look forward to see where they go with the franchise after this fine entry into the Apes saga.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.8/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Chillin' (before I hit the grind again next week!)

P.S. The 3D skeptic in me was also challenged thoroughly by this movie. Along with Avatar and Gravity, this is one of three movies that you could use to argue for 3D as a legitimate means for storytelling. 

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