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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

After two pretty miserable weeks, this blockuster season bounces back with one of its best entries yet.

Silencing most of even its most most doubtful skeptics, 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes successfully resurrected a franchise that looked more than a little dead. The previous attempt to bring the Apes franchise into the 21st century - Tim Burton's misjudged "reimagining" of the classic '60s science fiction film that started it all - crashed and burned, but it was apparently harder to kill a killer high concept than most assumed. Rise raked it up at the box office and garnered largely very positive reviews and was generally received about as well this kind of prequel/ reboot could ever hope to be. And, despite a few small flaws (James Franco's an engaging and likable leading man but an unconvincing scientist) Rise of the Planet of the Apes easily earned its warm reception.

What was less clear, however, was whether it was truly a new beginning for the franchise or just a particularly good one-shot that would spawn a bunch of mediocre sequels and spin-offs. It wasn't an unreasonable fear. Good as it was, Rise of the Planet of the Apes had an ending that drew a very clear line between it and the 1968 original so the idea of setting any more sequels between the two films looked set to be a largely redundant waste of time.

What's truly striking about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes then, is that it builds on and even surpasses its predecessor precisely by manipulating this potential failing. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a new director (Cloverfield's Matt Reeves replacing Rise's Rupert Wyatt) and an all-new human cast but it's still startling just how different a film it is from its predecessor - even as it shares both the same writers and a number of the same strengths.

While Rise of the Planet of the Apes was very much about explaining how the events of the original film - and its iconic climactic twist - came to be, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes those events as given and uses that precise inevitability to create a real sense of doom. While most thrillers - and, more than anything else, Dawn is very much a thriller - create tension by the uncertainty of what will happen next, this film creates its almost tangible sense of heart-pounding suspense precisely through the fact that even the most positive plot developments have the air of the apocalypse about them. It is not a film of major revelations or unexpected surprises but is one that uses the audience's previous knowledge and existing expectations to its advantage.  

The latest Apes movie is set about a decade after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes - or, more precisely, after the events of its mid-credits scenes - and as humanity struggles to survive its own decimation, the new breed of intelligent apes have quickly started to set up their own civilization. While humanity strives to carry on as before by living in largely ruined major cities (San Francisco, in our case) and relying on whatever electricity they can generate from old systems, the apes have set up a village of their own deep in the forest. It's a world that exists on a precarious peace between the rising primitive civilization of the apes and the far more advanced but ultimately fading civilization of mankind.

Wisely mirroring its predecessor however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes tells its larger tale while keeps its focus squarely on a small group of characters. It also apes (sorry, couldn't resist) the first film in that it's basically about an idealistic human man befriending the first of this new breed of ape. While the ape in question is once again Caesar (again spectacularly brought to life by flawless CGI and the equally flawless stop motion performance of the great Andy Serkis) who, in the ten years since the decimation of mankind, has grown to be the benevolent leader of his new tribe, our human hero Malcolm (Jason Clarke), is a scruffy engineer who is tasked with resurrecting a broken-down power plant that lies deep in the heart of ape territory.

What unfolds from there is a touching story of two very different creatures forging a real friendship, while needing to rely on that friendship as agents on both sides of the simian divide rise up to destroy that very precarious peace. Within such a premise is strong potential for plenty of thrills, humane character moments and - in keeping with what always drove the Apes franchise from the beginning - a strong social consciousness that uses this fantastical setting to explore all sorts of real-life concerns. And, to the great credit of Reeves and his screenwriters, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bromback, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes more than delivers in all three areas.

Dawn is a profoundly humanistic, enthralling and exciting piece of science fiction cinema that balances visceral set pieces with strong characterization, simmering tension and real intelligence and, from top to bottom, is well acted, well written and expertly directed. It's a film about nationalism, war and how humanity treats the "other" dressed up as a major Hollywood blockbuster, but is one that also very much delivers on that front too. It is also very simply one of the year's best films. It may not be the most re-watchable or fun blockbuster of the year (it's not really built to be either) but any fan of intelligent, beautifully put together speculative science fiction would be a fool to miss it.


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