Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 11, 2014 12:12 pm 
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Critics prefer the dingy "Dawn" to the sprightlier "Rise" because it's more epic

Men and apes en masse are at the end of their tether and about to engage in full-scale war with several destructive battles just behind them as we end number two of the reboot, Dawn of Planet of the Apes. Following the sprightly and more economical 2011 Rise of introduction directed by Rupert Wyatt that featured James Franco, which felt fresh, with its focus on things that went wrong in a lab, Dawn of Planet of the Apes, directed by Cloverfield director Matt Reeves with a largely new cast but the same writing team plus Wolverine's Mark Bomback, takes us firmly back to Apes franchise land. Murky but magnificent in its way, Dawn of delivers in terms of epic action and complicated CGI, featuring the decaying grandeur of some of San Francisco's major municipal sites, including city hall, and some ape-bashing-ape sequences that literally tear up the scenery.

But the plot seems a bit clunky. It may seem churlish to quibble about verisimilitude in a Planet of the Apes chapter, but the opening section has some gaping holes. This and the dim imagery and the lack of any interesting character development leave one wondering why so many critics are heaping praise on this film, which has dropped the adventurous and cool Franco in favor of the merely workmanlike Gary Oldman for its main human character. Do people even remember the best of the original 1968-1973 five films? And by the way, where is the "dawn"? This episode just feels like treading water -- and a TV episode. Are there to be ten films this time? There will have to be at the rate things are moving.

Providing continuity, if not logic, as Dawn dimly begins, we're still in San Francisco. By now most of the planet has been wiped out by an apocalyptic virus known as "simian flu" and now the city is wreckage and overgrown with lichen. The apes live up north somewhere, not too far, it seems, in Marin County where they'd gathered already in Rise. A small colony of human survivors in San Francisco is led by Gary Oldman. How they live is a mystery. They have weapons, ammunition, and they can drive a car, but have run out of power sources and, handy for the plot but less explicable otherwise, restoring a dam up where the apes live is now their only hope of getting power back. The apes have a thriving society, outnumbering the Bay Area humans, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis, inside an animatronic body as in Rise). It's surprising that they're completely unaware of humans surviving right down in San Francisco. It's also odd that it wasn't until the humans get the dam driving power to the city again that anybody could man a radio and try to contact the rest of the world. Pointing these things out may be rude, but all the action hangs on them, and it hangs by a thread.

Dawn is schizophrenic, as a film, because it wavers between depicting the sociopolitical negotiations between humans and apes, and all-out knock-down, drag-out warfare that tosses the results of those negotiations aside. By the end, as is the way of blockbusters, the violence prevails. Behind this is the conflict within the ape world. Caesar, who got on so well with James Franco, agrees to let the colony come to fix the dam, but Koba (Toby Kebbell) is the other ape who was traumatized in a lab, hates humans, and wants to usurp Caesar's rule. There's a parallel conflict in the colony when Dreyfus (Oldman) determines that the apes must be wiped out, and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) fights for peace. With lines drawn so simply, character development isn't subtle.

Then we come to how the apes talk. Miraculously, they communicate with mysterious subtitled sign language, but they understand English and like to throw out English words. They understand perfectly sophisticated English communication when the humans come to see them, but when they speak, they speak in grunted Me Tarzan-You Jane baby talk: "Koba. . .not. . . .ape" is a key speech from Caesar.

The interest of the plot lies in how the rift between ape and ape develops, hinging partly on the idea the virtuous simians have that "Ape not kill ape." But ape do kill ape, and one even kills his own son. This is part of how things are, at least in theory, both epic and tragic. Malcolm's family, including his wife Ellie (Keri Russell) has some touching moments caring for Caesar, and his sensitive, artistic son Alexander (the talented Kodi Smit-McPhee) connects with "good" simians in a special way.

Actually, it isn't a mystery after all why Dawn of Planet of the Apes comes in for so much praise (though why it's so much preferred to Rise of still baffles me). This is strong franchise material even if it is far from outdoing the best of the old Apes movies. Second, due to the season, standards have been adjusted. This is rated as "the best of this summer’s large-scale, big-studio franchise movies," as A.O. Scott of the New York Times proclaims. I don't think it's as provocative and thought-provoking as Scott says. But it does bring up some issues about trust, cooperation, and conflict. As the credits roll after some flashy battles, conflict is winning.

Dawn of Planet of the Apes, 130 mins., premiered in San Francisco 26 June 2014, opening theatrically in the US 11 July 2014; UK 17 July and France 30 July; flooding the world throughout the summer on different dates.

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