Friday, July 11, 2014

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” – Treading the beaten path.

I have no idea what to make of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which is probably what makes it something of a disappointment. Maybe a letdown was inevitable, both because of the old “sequels are always worse than the original” cliché and because Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a fantastic movie. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed Dawn, but something was definitely missing that made it a worse movie than Rise. And, no, it wasn’t James Franco.

The film begins with a montage of news reports overlaid with a map depicting the spread of the virus Franco’s character created around the globe over a period of ten years. When everything finally goes dark, we are greeted by our old ape pal Caesar (Andy Serkis), dressed in war paint, and signaling his troops for an attack. If you’ve seen any of the trailers, you’ve seen this scene and it’s not the impending attack on the remaining humans like you are led to believe. They’re hunting elk. Yeah – I know; I was baffled too. It’s a very misplaced scene in which Caesar gets a chance to teach his kid a lesson about patience and we all immediately ask the question “since when are apes carnivores?” I get that evolution would probably push them that way, but in only ten years? Am I already thinking too hard about this movie?

After an introduction to the apes’ home and society, a couple of the apes stumble across two humans in the forest and one of the apes is shot and killed by the panicky human, Carver (Kirk Acevedo). Caesar quickly responds and surrounds the larger group of humans that will become our main characters outside of Caesar and his advisor, Koba (also returning from the first film). The humans consist of Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), his wife Ellie (Keri Russell), Carver, and Kempt (Enrique Murciano) and were on a mission to restart a hydroelectric plant when they ran into the apes. In an effort to avoid conflict (and for the film to further establish his humanity), Caesar releases the humans and sends them home (to San Francisco). Koba argues that they must show force, so Caesar leads an army of apes to the city and warns the humans to stay out of the forest. At this point, we also meet the leader of the humans in Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who insists that they cannot survive without the dam. After Caesar leaves, Dreyfus immediately begins preparing for war and Malcolm convinces him to give him three days to speak with Caesar and convince him to compromise and let them restart the dam. This is also where the story kind of falls on its face.

We don’t know anything about the human colony other than they live in San Francisco and there are more than twenty people and less than a million. Dreyfus says that they will run out of fuel in a couple of weeks and the way the way to survive is to reconnect with other pockets of surviving humans. In other words, they need the power in order to make a phone call. Um, what? Other than communications, how is the power so necessary that they are using all of their fuel on it? And why are they still living in a city instead of closer to farmland? And what nuclear power plant is Dreyfus talking about when he says they “used up all of their nuclear fuel years ago” (the closest nuclear plant to San Francisco is roughly two hundred miles away)? And how many people are living there that they managed to consume the equivalent of 2.2 million people’s worth of electricity (per year)? These are questions you start wondering when the film gives electricity as the sole motivation for humans willing to go to war, but failing to give any rational explanation for using that electricity. In fact (SPOILER ALERT), when the humans do get their power back on, they all start dancing in the streets as if grocery stores are going to start magically spitting out Lean Cuisines and Fanta. Whatever.

The rest of the movie is incredibly predictable – humans and apes will try to get along for as long as needed, but certain apes named Koba would rather just kill all the humans because he hates them for experimenting on him pre-apocalypse. Even though the film was predictable, I found myself drawn in by the continued (from the first film) look into the shitty side of humanity; this time, taking shape in the enhanced-intelligent apes. It’s not subtle and probably explains the tepid applause by the audience when the film concluded (conversely, the enormously crappy Tammy received a resounding ovation, much to my chagrin) because people generally don’t like facing truths about our own shittiness.

Maybe my real problem with the film is that it didn’t try to break any new ground, as its predecessor did, and doesn’t even come close to telling a compelling a story. The actors were given very little to do, with the exception of Jason Clarke, who seemed slightly out of his depth. I’m not advocating for the deadpan Franco or the wildly inconsistent Mark Walhberg, but Clarke just wasn’t very convincing as a counterpart to Caesar. None of the humans were developed to a point that we should actually care about them, plus, Caesar is the hero and because humanity is so sucky, we’d actually prefer to spend less time with the humans and more time with the apes. In fact, a far better movie would have shown us two groups of apes having to deal with each other through their newfound intelligence rather than the well-trampled ground of ape vs. human that we’ve seen throughout the franchise.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back. It’s an entertaining movie and looks as good as the first, even though you can predict everything that’s going to happen well before it happens.

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