DAWN OF THE PLANET
OF THE APES
Predictable. In fact, predictably inhumane.
Film Review © 2014 by Trip Reynolds
Directed by Matt Reeves; Screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver; Characters by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle. Produced by Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver. Executive produced by Mark Bomback and Thomas M. Hammel.
Starring: Andy Serkis (as Caesar), Jason Clarke (as good human, Malcolm), Gary Oldman (as bad human, Dreyfus); Keri Russell (as Jason's girlfriend and doctor, Ellie), Toby Kebbell (as bad ape, Koba), Kodi Smit-McPhee (as Malcolm's son, Alexander), Kirk Acevedo (as Carver), Nick Thurston (as Blue Eyes), Terry Notary (as Rocket), Karin Konoval (as Maurice), Judy Greer (as Cornelia), John Eyez (as Foster), Enrique Murciano (as Kemp), Larramie Doc Shaw (as Ash), Lee Ross (as Grey), Keir O'Donnell (as Finney), Kevin Rankin (as McVeigh), Jocko Sims (as Werner) and a host of others.
Even though I had previously seen each film individually when initially released, many years ago I attended a "Planet of the Apes" (POTA) film festival where I watched all five original feature films back-to-back: Planet of the Apes (1968), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Seeing these films back-to-back made me realize why I always felt something major was missing from these films.
Having spawned seven films and a television series, "Planet of the Apes" is clearly a film franchise. As such, the norm for a successful "franchise" is to be branded and anchored with a "go to" person that represents stature and commands on-screen presence. For example, with the James Bond film franchise Sean Connery (or Roger Moore, or Pierce Brosnan, or Daniel Craig) "is" James Bond. For the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" film franchise Harrison Ford "is" Indiana Jones. For the "Alien" film franchise Sigourney Weaver "is" Ellen Ripley. For the "X-Men" film franchise Hugh Jackman "is" Wolverine. Unfortunately, POTA doesn't have an anchor, but should because it badly needs one.
What made the original 1968 film so iconic was not only the facinating script, based on the 1963 French novel by Pierre Boulle, but the larger-than-life presence of Charlton Heston. Like so many actors of his generation or any iconic actor (Humphrey Bogart, Betty Davis, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Meryl Streep, Rock Hudson, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Al Pacino, Elizabeth Taylor, etc.) Heston's on-screen presence made his films, from "Ben Hur" to "The Ten Commandments" to "Touch of Evil" to "The Omega Man" to "Soylent Green," so captivating and extremely watchable; and his voice was particularly distinctive, as when he said, "Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!" in the original POTA. Heston made us think seriously about this imaginary little story, he was just that believeable. But the sequel, "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" was lackluster until Heston appeared in his brief uncredited cameo. And no, although Roddy McDowall appeared as a common element in all five original films his character was not the iconic force the film needed. Then, in 2001 we get a re-imagining of POTA, this time directed by Tim Burton and starring Mark Wahlberg. Although the film made money, had an exceptional cast including Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Roth, Michael Clarke Duncan, Paul Giamatti and a even a cameo by Charlton Heston, it was a mistake to make this film because it suffered from many script re-writes and changes in lead actors and directors and related chaos, which is why Fox ultimately decided not to made a sequel.
Here again, with "Dawn" we have a film without an iconic actor to brand and anchor this franchise, and more importantly, someone to drive the story line, and the film suffers because of it. The problem here is simple, Hollywood has the technology to produce special effects that make both the apes (using performance capture technology) and the action sequences look unbelievably real, but the script is poorly written, formulaic, and extremely predictable. "Ape must not kill ape," is a standard we learned in the orginal 1968 film, and this credo was consistently and positively reinforced throughout the film as evidence why apes are better than humans. Of course, you could see it coming a mile away, that the climatic battle scence in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" would feature good ape (Caesar) vs. bad ape (Koba) to the death. Yawn.
The story failed to deliver on the promise to explain why apes are better than humans, and instead the script simply gives us apes with the same instinctive frailties and insecurities of human beings. If apes have not evolved to be better than humans, why waste our time showing us apes acting just like humans? Given that "Dawn" was not locked to Pierre Boulle's novel or to any of the previous films, why didn't the script challenge our imagination by evolving ape culture past all human development? Keep in mind, in the previous 2011 film, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" Caesar's intelligence was increased from inheriting the drug ALZ-112 from his mother. So, why not extrapolate further genetic development with Caesar and his progeny that might propel ape culture to pursue and achieve phenomenal cultural and/or scientific advancement, space travel, or even more? Instead, we have apes fighting apes. Apes fighting humans. Bang! Boom! Explosions! Yada, yada, yada. That's the entire story, really!!! Where's the antagonist who would threathen the destruction of both apes and humans? Where is the gut-wrenching finale of 1968's POTA, "We finally really did it . . . you maniacs, you blew it up . . . God damn you, God damn you all to hell!" Oops, that's right "Dawn" has neither a script or an iconic actor like Charlton Heston to convey such a powerful ending. But the performance capturing technology makes the apes look really real! Yes, please note the sarcasm of the previous sentence.
As far as the acting is concerned, who cares; it doesn't really matter because the actors in this film only function to transition from one special effect sequence or "establishing shot" (inside versus outside; bird's eye view to mid-range view, etc.) to another special effect sequence or establishing shot. For example, Gary Oldman is the only actor with any "major" film credit, but his on-screen presence is limited.
Film is directed by-the-numbers but capably by Matt Reeves, but at 130 minutes, film should have been trimmed by at least 30 minutes, really. By the way, the use of subtitles to translate the sign-language used by the apes was a nice touch.
As expected, special effects and technical aspects were solid. Film editing by William Hoy and Stan Salfas was tight, particularly the opening and closing scenes with the close-up on Caesar's eyes. Cinematography by Michael Seresin captured the bleak atmosphere of a post-apocalyptic human society, as did Art Direction by Marisa Frantz, Aaron Haye, Kelvin Humenny, William O. Hunter, and Naaman Marshall. However, with the absence of industry and technology, foliage would reclaim mastery over the planet, and the beauty of these natural vistas was not explored or championed in this film.
Recommendation: In a word, "Netflix" it, or wait and grab a copy from the $5.00 bin at Walmart. Hopefully, the third film in this POTA franchise will be better.