Dawn of the Planet of the Apes



Main Cast: Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman

Director: Matt Reeves

We have gotten Chateau Maine restored to its usual pristine self after the rather messy affair of Neely O’Hara’s wedding this past week. Serv-Pro has done a relatively creditable job of cleaning up some of the messier stains and have promised that the smell of 13th century castle that still permeates the air will be gone in a few more days with generous applications of Febreze. MNM enterprises doesn’t have any more celebrity wedding bookings on hand, but that should change when the pictures of Neely’s affair, at least the first part, appear in The National Enquirer this coming week. I’m sure the ravishing beauty of the setting will come through and the phone will be ringing off the hook.

Anyway, being a bit at loose ends, I was more than happy when the phone rang asking me to fill in as Grand Marshal of the San Diego Gay Pride Parade this past weekend. Apparently, it was supposed to be Elaine Stritch but the poor dear had to cancel due to unexpected death and I was the first living legend they had called who answered her telephone. The theme of the float was supposed to be ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ but I really didn’t want to intrude on darling Elaine’s territory so a few boys with construction paper and hot glue guns were able to quickly remake it into ‘The Ladies Who Launch’. So there I was, high on a platform, in a lovely apricot and aquamarine gown, surrounded by a selection of very well built aqua marines, swinging a large champagne bottle back and forth against a cardboard battleship prow down the length of Laurel Street.  The crowds loved me.

Now I do love my boys and am so glad that they have been amongst my most diehard fans over the years, but I do wish they paid a bit more attention. At the end of the parade, they went off to frolic leaving me stuck on the upper platform of the float. I was not discovered until my plaintive cries for help were heard by a passing security guard who immediately fetched a few lesbians with power tools and they soon constructed a ladder so I could safely descend.

Being at loose ends in San Diego prior to my commuter flight home in the morning, I headed off to the local multiplex where I met up with Normy (who had spent the day visiting with the makers of hand crafted zithers) and we settled in with a large popcorn to watch the most recent installment in the long running Planet of the Apes franchise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The original movies were made in the late 60s and early 70s and based on a French science fiction novel written by Pierre Boulle in 1963. The first film, Planet of the Apes, featured a nearly naked Charlton Heston and one of the most unforgettable final images in cinema history. It was a huge success and was followed up by four sequels of dubious quality and a short lived television series. Tim Burton unsuccessfully attempted to reboot the franchise in 2001 with his remake, a rather turgid affair that suffered from the miscasting of Mark Wahlberg in the central role. The very talented Tim Roth, Paul Giamatti and Michael Clarke Duncan as various apes labored to bring some spark to the proceedings but were done in by bad script, bad direction and a void in the center where the hero was supposed to be.

In 2011, the franchise was rebooted again, this time by director Rupert Wyatt working from a script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver in a film called Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Rather than go back to the original story, the creators opted to both update the film to present day and to tell an origin story of where the apes got their intelligence and abilities from (evil laboratory experimentation). The huge advances in motion capture and CGI plus the incredible talents of Andy Serkis, again playing a non-human role of the ape Caesar who is awakened to human like intelligence, made the film a success with both critics and audience.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes up where the previous film left off. At the end of the last film, a killer virus has been inadvertently unleashed by the evil Gen-Sys corporation, harmless to apes but fatal to humans. By the end of the credits sequence, it has become clear that human populations have been decimated by the virus, civilization as we know it, has collapsed and the world has changed mightily. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the ape and his friends, last seen battling the cops on the Golden Gate Bridge and fleeing into Muir Woods, have flourished and there is now a large, intelligent ape colony with its own wooden fortress, school and governance thriving in the woods. (We’re not supposed to notice that these woods are obviously the Douglas fir forests of the Pacific Northwest and look nothing like the woods of Northern California). Some humans have survived in San Francisco, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and have banded together in a large building downtown which is still under construction (apparently no finished buildings were available).   They have some generated power but their fuel stocks are dwindling so the humans decide that they need to reconnect the city grid to a source of hydroelectric power from a dam off in the woods. The problem is the dam is in ape territory and conflicts inevitably arise.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Director and Cast by William Tung (300x225)

Director Matt Reeves with cast members Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Andy Serkis. Photo by William Tung.

A plucky band of humans consisting of various types including Malcolm, the hothead Carver (Kirk Acevedo) who is the only surviving person who worked with the water company and can make the dam work, Malcolm’s girl Ellie (Keri Russell), son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Foster (Jon Eyez doing a Morgan Freeman turn) are off trying to set up a truce with Caesar so the humans can access the dam. Caesar too has a wife (Judy Greer) and son (Nick Thurston) whom the humans are able to help. Unfortunately, the pacifist coexistence preached by Malcolm and Caesar soon comes under attack by both human and ape politics, especially by the evil gorilla Koba (Toby Kebbell).   This leads to plot developments ripped off from Hamlet and The Lion King and soon apes and humans are battling each other and it doesn’t look good for the humans.

I found the film hugely entertaining, if one doesn’t dwell too much on some of the leaps of logic and playing fast and loose with the geography of San Francisco. The script is fairly literate, keeps you guessing from time to time as to where it’s going to go and has a couple of genuine surprises. The human characters are underwritten. Malcolm is stalwart but, after a couple of hours with him, we don’t know much more about him than when we started and most of his companions are there as tropes and plot devices more than fully realized characters. Gary Oldman has some good moments but he’s played this part plenty of times before. The true stars are the ape characters. Andy Serkis, top billed, in particular brings Caesar to soulful life and we know a whole lot more about his interior life than any of the humans and I, for one, kept rooting for the apes under his leadership. The other apes aren’t quite as successful, but they have less to do. Toby Kebbell’s Koba seems to have watched too many formula action pictures and picked up every villain trait he could find. I thought he was channeling Alan Rickman from Die Hard just a wee bit too much.

The visual look is handsome. The panoramas of a ruined and overgrown San Francisco show a great use of CGI. There are a number of shots of apes swarming through the trees and over rooftops that are mesmerizing. The shots of apes riding to war on horseback are less successful and probably should have been rethought. I think they are nods to the original films in which there is a lot of cavalry combat but those apes were obvious people in ape suits while these apes are much more true to their ape build and movements and probably could not have evolved so quickly into skilled horsemen.   The ending is a bit drawn out with a rather unnecessary battle at the pinnacle of an unfinished skyscraper. The film does its best in character moments which should be leavened with action sequences, not when we spend ten minutes with human and ape bodies flailing and explosions rocking the Dolby 6.

It’s certainly worth a view, especially at matinee prices. It has been released in IMAX and 3-D and various other tricks but it’s not a film that requires that sort of experience to be thoroughly enjoyed and hurling things at the camera is kept to a minimum.   The film, like the first, also ends on a bit of a cliffhanger note meaning that we are likely to meet these characters again in a couple of years. I trust they can keep up the quality and explore the story the way it needs to be explored, through character rather than through action set pieces.

Ape Commandments. Busted pipes. Gratuitous Phillips 76 sign. Grizzly battle. Blinking Ipad. Gratuitous James Franco. Rifle crates. Overturned bus. BART explosions.

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