DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES * * 1 / 2
Starring Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman. Screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. Directed by Matt Reeves.
Oh, what to do with a picture like this one?
As you’ve no doubt heard already, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an amazing feat of craftsmanship. It’s an extremely serious, allegorically-minded and quite brutally unpleasant piece of speculative science-fiction in which a ragtag band of humans – the last survivors of a superflu virus that wiped out most of the population – butt heads with a chemically advanced tribe of former laboratory apes who seem set to inherit the Earth. Misunderstandings ensue.
This is one beautifully made movie. Director Matt Reeves doesn’t just have an eye for compositions. Every camera choice here has meaning and thematic weight. You could watch this film with the sound turned off and it would be just as engrossing, probably better. It’s downright groundbreaking in that the two lead performances by Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell — as conflicted chimps in charge of a British Colombia forest that is supposed to be just outside of San Francisco – have been rendered via motion capture, a technology I don’t quite understand myself, but these dudes impart their simian characters with such expressive hearts and souls, you’ll swear there’s something flickering behind those CGI eyes.
Which is all a long way of dancing around me saying that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a very easy movie to admire and almost impossible to enjoy. I spent most of the running time appreciating the artistry while wishing I could be anywhere else. It’s a glum, morose grind towards the inevitable, devoted to a gloomy apocalyptic worldview unleavened by anything resembling wit or humanity. I’ve had more fun at funerals.
The film picks up a few years after 2011’s surprise hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes (I dare not ask why the rise came before the dawn) left off, but a rewatch is not necessary. I think we’ve all agreed to a collective amnesia on that one, since at the time it seemed a pleasant August delight given the way distributor Twentieth Century Fox was treating the film like something they found inside a diaper pail, so nobody now really wants to remember the fact that James Franco played a brilliant scientist who doesn’t age a day during the film’s fifteen-year evolutionary span. I think also Frieda Pinto and John Lithgow might have been in it, but I’d have to check IMDB to be sure.
Anyhow, Dawn begins after the fall. Our gang of human refugees is led by Jason Clarke, who you’ll probably recall as the disturbingly charismatic torture expert in Zero Dark Thirty. I wish I could say he has a similarly meaty role here, but the guy is just a blank slate in a NorthFace jacket. (He makes Sam Neill in Jurassic Park look like Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws.) Clarke’s trying to get a hydro-electric dam going again to bring electricity back to San Francisco, but doing so brings him deep into ape territory, which Serkis’ Ceasar and the rest of the simians have apparently settled into a peaceful agrarian community so idyllic it calls to mind Dances With Wolves, except without all the rough edges.
Guns ruin everything, which I guess qualifies as a gutsy stance for a movie in this day and age where we can have a mass shooting once a week and you’ll still have to put up with your asshole Facebook friends from High School bleating on about their Second Amendment rights. The coolest thing by far about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is just how much the original film’s star and NRA spokesman Charlton Heston would most assuredly fucking hate it.
In any case, a strained situation quickly goes from bad to worse. The reasonable Ceasar suffers an “Et tu” moment and humans are hijacked by Gary Oldman probably acting the way Gary Oldman from that recent Playboy interview would act in Real Life under similar circumstances. Meanwhile Keri Russell stands around in the background looking sad about everything, but she has less dialogue than the apes, who mostly speak in sign language.
And yet so beautifully directed! I honestly can’t make heads or tails of this Matt Reeves guy. His first feature was an unwatchable nineties Graduate rip-off called The Pallbearer, starring David Schwimmer of all friggin’ people. That one made me so angry, on my way out I ripped the head off a promotional cardboard Gwyneth Paltrow standee in the movie theater lobby and mailed it to my best friend in a brown paper box as a birthday present. (Author’s Note: This joke was way funnier back when Seven was still a novelty.)
Reeves has since helmed Cloverfield, in which he tried to find some nifty ways around the usual J.J. Abrams dickarounds, and Let Me In — a gorgeously shot and entirely unnecessary remake of Let The Right One In. He clearly knows how to make a movie. I can’t wait to see what happens when Matt Reeves finally figures out why he wants to make one.
Until then I guess we’ll have to make do with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, an impeccably orchestrated slog.