19 August 2014

First Impressions: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I was never tremendous into the Planet of the Apes franchise, but it has always sort of compelled me. It's really an age-old tale of an absolute classic sci-fi film spawning a ridiculous number of inferior B-level sequels that get crazier and crazier until peaking with this monstrosity. We took a while to get there, though, which I've already recounted here, for your pleasure. While the Tim Burton 2001 edition of Planet of the Apes seemed to do reach the pinnacle of everything wrong with Hollywood's remake culture in its incomprehensible narrative that sought to exploit its source material without adding anything significant to the cultural mythos of the property, Rise of the Planet of the Apes seemed to rectify much of the doubt in the minds of haters. SPOILERS to follow.
Aww! Fuzzy!

Like I said, I had never had much interest in this franchise, but in the past month, thanks no doubt to the premiere of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), there has been a bit of a revival and I've managed to catch EVERY SINGLE APES FILM on television at some point. Except for the original. But really, Dawn has nothing to do with the original and everything to do with its follow-ups, specifically the third through fifth sequels that dealt with the time loop-fueled origins of intelligent Apes on earth competing with humanity in the modern day. Got that?

Rise was essentially a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) in its goals and themes, but hardly the story. This was always kind of a weird move because of how inherently goofy the film is, but upon re-watching it I gained a pretty high degree of appreciation for what the original film was trying to do. I'd call it successful just because of how straight it plays everything ridiculous happening within it, as well as the credibility it gives to an Ape uprising along with thoroughly demonstrating the sly cunning of its protagonist, the eventual Ape King, Caesar.

Rise did much of the same work but with less time travel and pet epidemics to meet its end goals. Like Conquest, it's a satisfying film because of how straight it plays the idea of an Ape conquest of earth, or at least San Francisco, because that's really the only region established as partly under Ape Control in either modern film. It also walks this really clever line with Caesar, showing his intelligence despite his inherent animalistic nature. He's able to exploit the system of is captivity, from both Ape and Human angles to form his own society with followers understandably loyal to him for granting them thought and freedom. I think people dug this just because of how surprisingly good it was. While Planet of the Apes (2001) could be considered everything wrong with remakes, Rise is very much everything right - spinning fallible source material enough to add substantial themes to the mythos of the franchise. This subversion of expectation caused the normally groan-inducing sequel announcement of Dawn (wondering how far their thesaurus work will keep going for future sequels...) to be met with anticipation rather than dread.

Unlike Rise, though, which is based on the intriguing Conquest, Dawn is equally based on that film's sequel, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), which is largely considered the worst film in the series. I really think that Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) is a whole lot clunkier and campier (that's a tough margin, though), but Battle shouldn't really be esteemed at all. Seeing both films pretty close together, though, it's interesting how Dawn takes all these core conceits and plot elements straight out of Battle, turns some of them around, adds more credibility to others, and through a more careful non-B-movie treatment of production design, special effects, tone, and character work, succeeds in creating a pretty damn good movie.

Be sure, though, that it's not nearly as smart as Rise, or even Conquest for that matter. It would be more disappointing that it doesn't deal with these heady themes or intricate plot work if it didn't so delicately balance its own plot with significant tension and a remarkably tight sequence of action beats punctured by long intricate sections of dialogue (both verbal and non-verbal) to advance its narrative. It's a well-constructed film absolutely, but while watching it my mind was continuously drawn to whether that alone actually made it a good film.

I'm usually all about character, too, which this film does really well. There is a lot of depth and motivation behind the actions of every major character in the film, and Caesar in particular shines as one of the more complex Summer Heroes of 2014. I think that I just can't get over the general dourness to the whole precedings, especially since the way my summer worked, I happened to watch this the weekend after I saw Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which was obnoxiously fun. Dawn, despite its really good narrative and character work, just isn't that fun of a film. It's constantly rainy and pouty, and despite the undercurrent of hope that runs through it, it is always more or less headed to an inevitably depressing conclusion (which it hits). It's not like this is inherently a bad thing, indeed it often offers a less "Hollywood" happy ending, but like I said, I think I was riding a high from watching Guardians and I'll have to revisit this sucker. It's not like an uplifting ending would fit the mood or tone of the film, either. Nor is it an issue that the film takes itself too seriously or anything, in fact, there tends to be this acknowledgement that it's crazy for these Apes to be acting this way.

The film primarily deals with this kind of bizarre examination on the nature of war; from the invariable tension between different peoples to the miscommunication, the misinterpretation of intention, and the struggle to appear strong in the face of a strange new neighbor that leads to conflict. It makes this interesting case for the need for diplomacy but also how mistrust from past sins can doom future relations. There isn't really a bad guy in the film, just a couple racist (apeist?) douchebags on both sides that cause problems for everyone as their situation spirals out of control. It's a stage setting movie for what will presumably be a greater conflict in the next installment...which is really exactly what the ending of Rise did - so there is some disconnect there in this story's execution within the framework of the franchise's larger arcing narrative, although the character progression is worthwhile.

It's also this enticing look at how complex the politics are in this ostensibly simple society, which still has so many direct roots in the animal kingdom. It's very much this bridge between how a shrewdness of Apes would act and how they are just making up a new society as they go along based on these monkey traditions, what they've learned from their impression of human society, and Caesar's decrees. Koba is actually almost a visionary for creating the idea that Caesar is not Ape God, and if Koba didn't want to himself become an Ape God, he could have been a great leader.

On that note, let's talk about Battle for the Planet of the Apes. For those of you who haven't seen the film, it follows Caesar in the early 21st Century (there's actually bizarre contradictions within the film as to the exact year it takes place) is trying to form this integrated society between Apes and Humans in the wake of an off-screen nuclear war, although Humans are clearly second-class citizens. A crazy gorilla named Aldo is totes opposed to this deal and wants Ape Supremacy. Caesar goes to the Forbidden City to learn more about his wacky parent seen in the first three movies but it turns out there are all these mutated humans still living there who remember what a dick Caesar was in Conquest. Tensions rise between all three forces and everyone ends up fighting each other, and Aldo eventually falls out of a tree after killing Caesar's son, so Caesar's vision of an integrated Human/Ape world is eventually realized.

There is still a little bit of ambiguity, though, because the final scene seeing both Human and Ape learning together takes place in 2670 AD, while the time period Charlton Heston visits is 3978 AD, meaning maybe the timeline changed or maybe things get really bad for humans in a millennium or so? But there are all these similarities to Dawn, which is interesting to me, just because everybody hates Battle but loves Dawn, so all that goodness must just all be in the construction of the film, right? For once, no one really cares about nostalgia here, which is cool, especially how much it sometimes hampers other properties that must keep on making these winking references (thought that is a nice lampshade) and more fan service repetition and things (I'd put a spoiler warning on that last link, but since the scene is actually so meaningless and temporary, it doesn't really give away anything significant. Just another scene that happened). But this is totally weird because there are a crazy amount of references to this terrible 70s B-Movie that no one really remembers.

The school and the Ape mantra "Ape Shall Never Kill Ape" are there, down to the Orangutan teachers. The role of Aldo the insane militaristic Gorilla is played in Dawn by Koba, who as Caesar says, "Learned only hate from humans." The eponymous battle arises because of Apes trespassing on Human land, for which Humans retaliate out of mistrust of past sins and more directly, after a Gorilla scouting party kills a wandering human. Dawn simply reverses this, with a group of humans exploring Ape Country (...Donkey Kong Country...if you will), and then Apes drawing first blood after both sides mistrust each other. There are crazy fanatics and rational heads on both sides in both films.
Bad Aldo! Bad! I mean Koba

Then there's business with Caesar's son. In Battle, the son is named Cornelius, and he is caught spying on Aldo, who then knocks him out of a tree, for him to die of his wounds later. In Dawn, Caesar's son, Blue Eyes falls under Koba's sway after Koba attempts to kill Caesar, framing humans in the process. Koba then kills Rocket's son, Ash. Aldo/Koba is the first to violate the "Ape Shall Never Kill Ape" law and thus causes Caesar to realize that neither Ape nor Human can be trusted or mistrusted intrinsically. It's actually a profound statement on the nature of creating monsters to fight wars against, and the one interesting turn Dawn makes from Battle is that at the end, even though Caesar has this profound realization, he still finds himself at the center of an inevitable war with an enemy who cannot feel the same way about him that he feels about them. Battle ended with harmony, but Dawn ends with terror. Both Aldo and Koba also fall off tall structures while fighting Caesar. Bummersville.

Make no mistake, Dawn treats these plot elements with a whole lot more credibility than Battle does. Battle steeps itself in its B-movieness, with vengeful Nuclear Mutants and men in rubber ape suits running amuck in general chaos with its inciting action of trespassing on forbidden land based on one Ape's search for knowledge about his future-living, time-travelling parents. Dawn at least presents a pretty rational hunt for resources as its inciting incident, and strives continuously to lend real motivation and consequences to its actions.

On that note, it ought to be mentioned that while Andy Serkis again delivers a wonderful Ape, the human players; including Jason Clarke (who, after this and Zero Dark Thirty [2012] ought to be considered one of our newest, most thoughtful non-action action stars), Keri Russell, who has had an awesome resurgence lately, and Gary Oldman - brief but powerful here; shine impeccably.

On a last note, and perhaps this ought to get its own post at this point, but what the hell is up with our Summer? We've had a heady average of around $200 million, which is staggeringly low, despite the craziness of this Guardians and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)-fueled August. I mean, it's tough to say that $200 million isn't successful, because it certainly is, but nothing has broken out this year domestically. It's important to add this part, because internationally, we're about right where we should be. So how should we be measuring these films' success? Domestically? Internationally? Critically? It's been kind of a weird summer for that as well. I have actually dug a lot of films this year, despite the obvious inconsistencies in something like Days of Future Past (2014) or the perhaps misguided attempt at doing a JAWS (1975)-version of Godzilla (2014). One thing is for certain: the Hollywood Blockbuster Machine is definitely attempting to make good movies. For a lack of a better example because it has become the poster child for dumb, loud, and inconsiderate filmmaking, there have been less Transformers-style releases this year. Except of course for TransIVmers: Age of Extinction (2014). And Turtles. Considering the money both of those made, though, Hollywood really ought to be praised for their attempt at challenging us at the Summer cinema.

Maybe I've got some selective vision here, though. We did suffer through The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), which tended to do everything wrong that a world-building movie could do through a general air of incoherence. But my mind tends to wander towards Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014) more than this or Maleficient (2014). No one is making really big money domestically, though, and it's tough to see this year going to anyone besides The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) or The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies (2014) coming out this all. Actually, it will be all Hunger Games.

Holy shit these impressions got off track quick. Anyway, I liked Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and it's an incredibly well-made movie, but some part of it just limits its fun. And it's not like "dark" can't be fun, and I'm not sure I'd even call this "dark" or "serious." And it's not like bummer movies can't be good, either. I loved The Road (2009) which I always think of as the biggest bummer movie of all time. I'll need some time to sit with this, which in itself I suppose makes me think and reflect more than some other movies this summer.

Dawn is still playing...probably somewhere. Good luck!

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