Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Here's the latest entry in a franchise that gets increasingly better, proving that a blockbuster can still have a brain in our age of attention disorder summer tentpole movies.

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" may be the third of the series since the beginning of the 21st century - Tim Burton's so-so "Planet of the Apes" being the first of the franchise since the 1970s - but this third film is more of a sequel to 2011's surprisingly good "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

In this sequel, which is set some 10 years later, James Franco has been replaced by Jason Clarke ("Zero Dark Thirty") as a member of a colony living on the outskirts of San Francisco following a devastating simian virus that wiped out much of the planet.

Malcolm (Clarke) lives with his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell) amid the other members of the walled-in commune, which is led by Gary Oldman's Dreyfus. During an expedition, Malcolm stumbles across the community of apes that sprung up following the events of the 2011 film and is now led by Caesar (Andy Serkis).

One of the more interesting elements of "Dawn" is how humans and apes are paralleled, but without the film beating us over the head about it. For instance, there are good humans and bad ones as well as noble apes (Caesar, his family and a friendly orangutan named Maurice) and evil ones (Koba, who is rivaling Caesar for leadership).

Another curious element of the picture is how unlike most blockbusters it actually is. While there are a few action sequences and the set design was obviously costly, much of the film is comprised of dialogue - between the humans and themselves, the apes and themselves and the apes and humans. The picture's opening 15 minutes or so are especially bold for a film released during this time of year in that much of it involves the apes communicating amongst themselves via sign language or subtitled grunts. It would appear that director Matt Reeves - who was previously responsible for the enjoyable "Cloverfield" and the woefully underrated remake "Let Me In" - has Stanley Kubrick more on the mind than the typical blockbusters churned out by the studios during the summer season.

In many ways, "Dawn" plays like a prelude to the next film, setting up a war between apes and humans, but it's uncommonly smart in the way it does this. Not only are the humans in the film given a little more depth than you might expect from a blockbuster, but the apes have distinct personalities as well.

And it should be noted that Serkis's work as Caesar and the effects involved in creating the other apes' facial expressions are pretty astonishing. Here is a film that utilizes multiple special effects - but subtly and for the purpose of developing the apes' characters, rather than bombarding the audience with eye candy. "Dawn" is a picture that is visually impressive, but leaves you with something on which to chew. This is a rare thing for a blockbuster and I think that those behind the reins of this franchise are really on to something.

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