Monday, July 14, 2014

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes": No Monkey Business

Now In Theaters
I’m honestly a little bit shocked that this movie exists.  Despite how awesome Rise of the Planet of the Apes was, I don’t remember it being a huge box office success, nor have a heard clamorings for a sequel, and yet here we are with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  And you know what?  It.  Is.  Awesome.  In a summer where I’ve had generally positive feelings about almost every blockbuster I’ve seen (not counting the horrible Godzilla, of course), Dawn really takes the cake as a summer action flick.  And you know why?  Because it expects its audience to think, and that’s something one doesn’t see often in cinema between the months of May and August.  This is hard sci-fi at its best, where the action takes a backseat to the intellectualism and character drama, and yet still offers some of the most satisfying imagery you’ll see this summer.

The story picks up ten years after the events of Rise, where the ape Caesar (the only returning character from Rise) has established a settlement for his ape brethren after the fall of mankind to the Simian Flu, the same mutagen that endowed the apes with heightened intelligence.  All seems at peace until the apes discover a band of surviving humans.  It turns out that the humans want only to provide electricity to their settlement through a dam that is in ape territory.  Neither side trusts one another, and yet, neither side has anything to gain or lose by helping the other.  Caesar seems to be the only ape to have positive memories of the human race, so tensions are high as Caesar's chief general advocates a preemptive strike.  The humans, meanwhile, stockpile weapons in preparation of an assault, which only adds to the pressure on the shaky truce the two sides have.

What’s so wonderful about this set-up is that there isn’t really a bad guy in this scenario.  This is a story about two species trying to co-exist, but their mutual distrust of one another makes that difficult to realize.  Everyone who plays a key role in the film’s events has clearly defined reasons for making the decisions they do, and even when a villain does become apparent, their motives are entirely sympathetic and relatable.  This is only further advanced by the fact that the focus of the film is primarily on the apes and their society, treating the humans more as plot devices than actual characters.  This is not only impressive from a storytelling perspective, but it also makes the apes seem like a fully fleshed-out society comprised of thinking individuals, an amazing feat considering that most speak only in sign-language and at most can grunt words in broken English.  What comes of this is a thoughtful meditation on the consequences of mutual distrust and how that can lead to mutual destruction, both from without and within.

But, of course, much of the audience is going to want to see some intense ape action, and this film has it in spades in the latter half.  Without giving away too much of the surprise, seeing apes ride on horseback and wield machine guns while still moving in an apelike fashion is an incredibly fun visual.  The ape-on-ape fights are fantastically choreographed and the final battle is actually quite symbolic of the contrasting ideologies of the characters fighting one another.  The fact that the action works on both a visual and literary level is very much appreciated.

So, yeah, I absolutely loved Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  It is a thought-provoking science fiction film with plenty of action and plenty of smart writing to balance it out.  Seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes is recommended, but not necessary for fully enjoying this sequel, and I’m sincerely hoping for a hat-trick with a third Apes prequel in the coming years.

Have a favorite Planet of the Apes film?  Let me know in the comments below.

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