Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, sequel to Rise of the Planets of the Apes, sets a shining example to wannabe blockbuster producers and film makers everywhere. However, while writing this I unfortunately may succumb to the overuse of the two words “of the”, but I shall press on regardless.
According to IMDb, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the story of: “A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species.” There, that about sums it up.
In what could have become an overwrought and cumbersome sequel to a prequel, Dawn clearly captures the imagination, the heart, the brain and not surprisingly the wallets of movie going audiences. It is a clever and well thought out piece of work, a far cry from the current batch of cookie-cutter, designed by committee released over summers gone by (I’m looking at you “Amazing” Spiderman). The film does so through the use of an extremely tight script as well as possibly the most cutting edge CGI of all time.
We had to talk about it eventually, so let’s get down to it. When Avatar was released people quite rightly raved about the use and quality of CGI and even more rightly complained about its painfully simple script (I do have more to say about Avatar, but that is for another time). I believe that Dawn completely surpasses Avatar in terms of visual fidelity and narrative quality. If I may be frank, the apes just look awesome. It is so spectacular, (but not in an Avatar “wooow!” kind of way). It is spectacular in a way that you don’t even notice, it knocks you aback and you have to adjust to it, just like how the humans in the film react to them. For now at least it overcomes the uncanny valley, perhaps in a few years this may fade. At the present however, the way they look, the way they move, the way they act is all so convincing that for extremely large portions of the film I forgot they were even CGI. I just accepted the spiel I was given and went with the flow.
Andy Serkis definitely deserves a mention for his outstanding motion capture work. Caesar has a distinct style and body language that sets him apart from the rest of the Apes. Whether Serkis deserves an Oscar nomination is an interesting debate to be had. Some of the shots in the film are little bit like a pat on the back; it is like the film makers are saying “Phwaor!!! Look at that CGI, pretty impressive huh?!” but I guess that is kind of the point of these shots, it’s the film reminding us that on screen there bloody talking apes (!) on the screen. The fact that one can sometimes forget that there are such things is a testament to how good the CGI – and storytelling – is in general but to be reminded of it is to continually recontextualise it. There is something frightening about walking talking apes and it demonstrates why the human characters are so afraid of them.
Cinematographically, it is pretty good. There are a few standout shots like the one when Koba jumps on an armoured vehicle (It’s partially in the trailer) while it is spinning around, takes it over and takes aim at the humans. It captures the turning of the tide in one singular motion. Later, another long shot of Malcolm evading apes adds heaps of tension. Apart from that however, it is pretty standard fare. As I alluded to above the way they chose to show the movement of the apes was key, show too little and we feel short changed a little bit, but show too much and our eyes will be able to tell it ain’t real.
I went to see this in 3D (the only showing unfortunately) and, as a certified hater of 3D I must admit that it wasn’t half bad. There were a few moments that were genuinely good 3D moments but it still suffers from the perennial problems of 3D: the light loss, the cramped feeling of the smaller more dramatic scenes. To see re-watch it in 2D may prove illuminating, but I’d say you probably aren’t missing much by watching in 2D.
A small side note. Maybe it was the cinema I went to or the 3D but the aspect ratio of the film seemed a little tight and too small. Maybe this is normal, but noticing big black bars at the side of the screen can’t be good.
For those who have seen the film (and probably the trailer) it may seem glaringly obvious that the main thematic thrust of Dawn is the parallels and similarities between Apes and Humans. Credit to the film, it is a concept I never gave much thought to and it is presented in a gobsmackingly clear way. Both Apes and Humans are trying to preserve their homely sanctuaries and way of life. Malcom and Ellie have both lost loved ones in the flu and both recognise the importance of family.
Perhaps the best scene in the film is one where once power is restored to the city Gary Oldman’s character (Dreyfus) looks on a tablet at a picture of his family and weeps. To me, it perfectly captured humanity’s over-reliance on technology and how without it, we are powerless. The only time Dreyfus can see his children again is in a fleeting moment when they regain power. This is echoed later on in the film when Caesar finds a video of a young him with James Franco (from Rise) teaching him about his “home”. Both the scenes, individually and collectively, show the importance of family and community and they define their very existence and collective purpose. The Humans are trying to reclaim lost glory, like a fallen Rome (Caesar anybody?), or from a biblical viewpoint “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10, KJV). Could Caesar be considered a “Son of Man”? I’m just asking the questions. The Apes are struggling to maintain a foothold in their new domain, unsure of themselves, their power, and how it affects the world around them.
The true magnificence of the film however is how much information is given to us in such short gestures. Adam Kempanaar (of the eternally excellent Filmspotting podcast) described Dawn as a “Shakespearean action film” and that is an excellent summation of the screenwriting. The Apes have developed sign language as their mode of communication and when they speak out loud they use very broken English. Additionally Caesar is the titular character in the play Julius Caesar, food for thought. If Shakespeare is known for one thing it is being wordy, but he explains lots within those carefully chosen words. Barely a word or sentence is wasted in Shakespeare and here it is exactly the same. Apes, without their words, express their feelings through sign language and grunts. They speak in broken English, using very few words. Michel Foucault said that there is relationship between language and power and the advancement in their language certainly reflects that.
This works so brilliantly. For example, there is a scene where Caesar and Koba are discussing whether or not they should attack the humans while they are weak. Caesar says that they should play nice and let them do their “work” (i.e. getting a power generator operational), Koba then looks back and says “Human, work?” then points a scar on his arm and again says “Human work” then to two more scars while saying “Human work”. It captures so effortlessly the motivations of the character, without the need of unnecessary flashbacks of Koba receiving injuries. We feel the pain of Koba and his motives almost become justified. It’s almost a literalisation of the old, worn rule of “show don’t tell”. And you can tell why the rule is so popular because it just works here. When things like that are explained so well, the film doesn’t get bogged down in exposition or backstory because we understand what is happening, what has happened and what the stakes are. Indeed, Shakespeare himself said that “brevity is the soul of wit” and I think he’d be proud of his aphorism in action here.
A criticism I would offer is that the humans are not portrayed as well, or as complex as their ape counterparts, but in their defence their motivations are set out clearly. Perhaps this is just my human hubris expressing itself. Make no mistake, here, the apes are the stars. One final point, the opening news reel felt a little incongruous within the film and that style has been used so often in blockbusters as a way of dumping exposition on us (it was used as recently as Godzilla). Perhaps it would’ve been better showing one report rather than hammering us with lots of them. Hope Obama survived though.
I don’t wish to end on a bad note for a great film so I’ll say this: Dawn is worth your time; so far it is the best summer blockbuster of the year in terms of enjoyment and emotional engagement. The CGI is phenomenal and I am very glad this is reflected in its handsome box office numbers.