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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

It’s amazing to me how far we’ve come since 1968’s Planet of the Apes. I just watched that movie for the first time, and was surprised how empty and vapid it is, crammed with ill-fitting and pitifully shallow “social commentary.”  I can’t see how in the world that original movie generated four sequels, a 2001 Tim Burton remake, and now two prequels.

What’s even more amazing is how far above their source material these two prequels are.  I don’t think I reviewed “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” in 2011, by I watched it and enjoyed it enough to buy the DVD. It’s a fine, thoughtful, surprisingly poignant film.  And “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is even better.
Taking place 10 years after the events of the last films, “Dawn” finds the intelligent apes living in a treehouse colony in the forests near San Francisco.  They haven’t seen humans in years, and assume they’re all gone, but they’re wrong.  A desperate colony is hanging on in the city, unsure if anybody anywhere else has survived , and unable to communicate outside the bounds of the city.
The two communities become aware of each other and try to relate with caution and wariness – both want to keep the peace, but do not trust the other side.  On the human side, this is little more than racism (technically, species-ism, I guess)  as most of them fail to grasp that there could be another intelligent species worthy of respect on the planet. The apes, however, have good reason not to trust their human counterparts.  Many of the founders of the colony have vivid memories of the days of captivity and abuse.
Jason Clarke leads a human expedition into Ape territory, in an effort to repair a dam that will power the human colony in the city. Aided by his wife, Kerri Russell, and son Kodi Smit-McPhee, he is a model of diplomacy, trust-building, and careful communication (though I did wonder why he didn’t bring along someone who spoke ASL as an interpreter; the apes understand English, but speak very few words.) Unfortunately, not everyone on his team is as respectful as he is, and for a while it looks like this movie is going to go the “Prometheus” route, where one bad apple can spoil a whole expedition.
But then the film pulls back from that and delves into the ape community, where much more interesting things are happening.  Caesar (Andy Serkis,) the protagonist of the earlier film, is extending trust to the humans in ways that are alarming to more than a few of his followers, and especially to Koba (Toby Kebbell,) who bears the scars of human brutality all over his body. Caesar has seen the best of humanity; Koba the worst.  Both tend to think all humans are basically the same.
“Dawn” is really well-written.  It portrays with s remarkable degree of nuance the way that two communities with a history of broken trust struggle to co-exist; the ways they try to balance peace talks with demonstrations of strength, how it’s tempting but misguided to try to relate to a culture as homogeneous and consider the actions and opinions of one member as representative of the entire community’s, and the ways that a leader pursuing peace is always working against a clock of rising tension and discord – if we don’t get something done fast, we’re not going to get anything done at all. Any student of history, or current geopolitics, will find a lot that resonates in this movie about talking monkeys who ride horses and shoot assault rifles.
The action scenes are there, too, but I found them less interesting than the in-between spaces, which means the movie ironically wound down as it ramped up. The final sequence wasn’t at all up to par with the rest of the film, as an aging, injured ape basically goes one on one with his much stronger, healthier opponent, in a battle to the death for supremacy.  Whatever happened to diplomacy and intrigue? Is the message here that negotiation and trust building are fine, but at the end of the day, the hairy ape who can smash in the skull of all the other hairy apes is the one who will rule?  I hope not.  Such a simplistic ending undermines a much finer, more thoughtful and nuanced movie.  But let’s give credit where credit is due: it’s almost miraculous that this movie emerged from its stupid source material.  It’s almost as amazing as talking apes evolving from their dim-witted grandfathers.
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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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