Thursday, July 31, 2014

Endangered Species

Andy Serkis in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014, directed by Matt Reeves) is probably the best film in the franchise since the original item back in 1968. That it's made something from the leavings of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the last and least regarded of the original series, is something completely unlooked-for. Dawn has formidable technical bona fides, including another astonishing mocap performance by Andy Serkis (who is top-billed!). It's a thoughtful sci fi apocalypse; yet another post-human speculation, no less. It's also not very much fun.

This picks up where Rise of the Planet of the Apes left off. Caesar and his brood of former captive apes have founded a city of their own in the woods of Northern California. Meanwhile, a genetically engineered plague--dubbed "simian flu" by the public--wipes out most of humanity. The survivors cling to the vestiges of civilization with the aim of rebuilding. One such enclave has taken up residence in San Francisco and has sent out a party to put a hydroelectric dam back into operation so they'll have power once their fuel runs out. This takes them through ape territory, and a fatal misunderstanding ensues. Caesar leads a show of force to the city and tells the humans to stay out of their territory. Unfortunately, the dam is too important for them. Malcolm, and idealistic human, returns to the apes in order to negotiate with them. Caesar, reluctantly, hears him out. Malcolm's companion, Ellie, is a nurse and turns out to be invaluable in saving the life of Caesar's wife, who has contracted a post-partum infection. This doesn't sit well with Caesar's second in command, Koba. Koba suffered much at the hand of human scientists and would like nothing more than to exterminate them. Koba stages a secret raid of the armory in San Francisco and as the dam comes on line, attempts to assassinate Caesar. His coup is successful enough that he riles up the apes and starts a war on the humans in San Francisco. Caesar, still alive but left for dead, is rescued by Malcolm and Ellie. He's the only one who can stop the massacre, but is he too late? And is he strong enough to seize the leadership of the apes from Koba?

Andy Serkis in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

As a film, this can't really be faulted for its craft or ambition. I would struggle mightily if I were required to pick this apart and say that such and such scene didn't work or that such and such set-piece is awkward. This is state of the art commercial cinema. It has a world that it has thoroughly imagined, it has a concept for how to film its apes that it pulls off with enough panache that the special effects cease to read as special effects. It has good actors and good performances in key roles. I could grouse about the way it completely marginalizes women, and I will, but when push comes to shove, director Matt Reeves has done a thoroughly professional job of mounting this story. The camera is always in the right place. The shots, when they count, are composed with a clarity of purpose even during the chaos of the late film's battle scenes. It's edited in an almost classical "invisible" style. It holds your attention for its entire running time. This is all an accomplishment in an era where the movie sometimes doesn't matter beyond the high concept and the marketing strategy. This film is legitimately good when it doesn't necessarily have to be good and no apologies necessary.

Andy Serkis and Jason Clarke in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The characters are mostly well-conceived, if a bit lacking in diversity. Among the humans, Jason Clarke's Malcolm is the stock faintly liberal leading man. Clarke plays him as world-weary, which is good for diverting the audience from the fact that he's a paragon of virtue, looking out for his son and trying to save the world. Gary Oldman's Dreyfuss is a hardheaded bigot who sees the apes as mere animals. He's fine with wiping them out. Keri Russell's Ellie has depressingly little to do. She's the only woman with a speaking part in the film, unfortunately, and she has no agency of her own. That she's a nurse is convenient to the plot. I say that knowing that at least one of the apes has an ambiguous gender: the orangutan, Maurice, has a masculine name but is performed by actress Karin Konoval. You never see the genitals of any of the apes thanks to the MPAA, so who knows, eh? Kodi Smit-McPhee's teenager could have been played by any number of actors, which is depressing given the performances he's given elsewhere (including Matt Reeves's Let Me In), though I do like the scene between him and Maurice in which the two bond over a copy of Charles Burns's Black Hole. Ultimately, the humans in this film are the equivalent of the humans in any given Godzilla movie. The audience doesn't have much, if anything invested in them, and why should they? Really, it's the apes that are the star attractions here. It's the apes who sell tickets.

Andy Serkis in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Caesar is one of the marvels of the contemporary cinema. Like Gollum before him, Caesar is a virtual character who is more alive than many of his human co-stars. Caesar is brought to life by Andy Serkis, Gollum himself, who has carved out a nice career in these kinds of roles. It's a testament to his art that Caesar is so very, very different from Gollum or from Serkis's performance as King Kong. He's a latter-day Lon Chaney, excelling in character parts that completely obscure him behind digital paint, but acting through that none the less. That might be stretching a point, though. In any event, he invests Caesar with the broadest range of emotions played by any actor in the film, and he achieves a kind of interiority that completely trumps any notion that he's not a "real" character. Serkis really is remarkable here. So too is Toby Kebbell as Koba, though Koba mostly gets rage to play. The film marks him as a villain in the tradition of Bond films, in which the villains wear their villainy on their bodies as various maimings. Koba has a terrifying scar on his face and a dead eye, such that he couldn't be anything other than villainous. He's Richard the Third in simian drag. The final conflict between Caesar and Koba provides an interesting response to those people who prefer practical effects, given that there is an analogous scene in Battle for the Planet of the Apes featuring actors in make-up. This film trumps that scene in every conceivable way, save, perhaps, the rage in Roddy McDowall's eyes. There's an emphasis on eyes in this film, too, perhaps as a means of looking into the souls of its apes, but also as a defiant gesture toward the valley of the uncanny, where CGI characters have often failed because their eyes were dead. This film's eyes are very much alive.

Toby Kebbell in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

As I say, this is all very laudable, as are the overarching themes of tolerance in the face of aggression, understanding instead of prejudice, and diplomacy instead of warfare. This is a film with very humanist (simian?) values. But, man, it's a downer. As an entertainment, this is depressing. Its fatalism in the end points to a world where apes are supreme--it has to given where the series ends up--but that supremacy is built on a foundation of human corpses. This is a film that's drenched in melancholy. It's a film that should be a romp, but it plods. It's serious and grim when it should occasionally wink at the audience. It's the grimdark fallacy brought to a franchise that has always had a satirical bent. This is the most dour film in the series, even considering that Beneath blew up the Earth and Conquest cast Caesar as Malcolm X. A scene like the one in the original film where we see the orangutans on Zaius's kangaroo court posing as the "see no evil, here no evil, speak no evil" monkeys would utterly break this film's game face. That might not be a bad thing. Traditionally, the apes of these movies have been chimps, gorillas, and orangutans, but the last film added bonobos to the mix and bonobos settle their disputes by having sex. I know that this film was bound by its rating, but think of the possibilities! Alas, no.

Mind you, I like this film for what it is. But it's not a film that lets me get close enough to it to love.

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Dr. AC said...

I watched this yesterday and had the same response - it's technically perfect on every level, the performances are all quite serviceable, but its an unceasing dirge, crushing the viewer with its "serious" tone. Even the thrills are presented in a "we really mean it, by god" fashion. The lighter moments, if you can call them that, are between Caesar and his mate, and they're equally loaded with portent - we know that this moment will pass and we'll be back to the oh-so-serious business at hand. Yes, it may suit the film, but it's sure not a lot of fun.

Zach Murphy said...

This is one of my favorite films of the year, but I agree that it's quite a downer.