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Monday, November 10, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review: True to Caesar.

Tomorrow, you can see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on the internet. On Google play and what have you. Which is great for several reasons. Either you've been waiting months for this thing, or you needed an excuse to release a half finished review that's been festering in your draft archives for  months.

Either way, this is a good movie. If you've seen Rise at least twice, I've found it's an even better movie. In fact, this is one of the rare sequels that works best as a double feature. In much the same way Quantum of Solace is a better film back to back with Casino Royale. Seriously. Try doing that. 

But it's not exactly the same situation, because Dawn is a much, much, better film than Quantum. As well as one of the best war movies I've ever seen. Well... at least one of the best movies "about" war I've seen. But it ain't perfect. Far from it. There's a mini series worth of material here that isn't given enough time to breathe. I'd have loved something like a 6 part BBC affair. That would have been a more effective way to tell this story of doomed peace between species.

We'd need 2 episodes from each side and a 2 part finale. One; because the humans aren't given a fraction of the nuance they need to be compelling and two, I could watch Caesar's mo-capped band of apes for days. They are singularly the finest achievement in CGI since Gollum. But as such, the film gets rudely awakened from it's wonderful dialogue free "apes being apes" scenes for it's clumsier rising action sections. The humans are a script draft away from being good, they have a small amount of characterization that keeps them from detracting from the movie, but in the end they only serve to create conflict. And with that... I'm done talking about the people. Let's talk about what this film truly mastered.

I'm pretty sure that guy has polio.

Sure, they nailed Caesar in Rise, but you only saw maybe one or two other apes manage to become characters near the end. Now there's an entire army to contend with and most are given personalities as well as names. Yes, Koba was spectacular, and I'll get to him. But Blue Eyes? Rocket? Caesar's wife (even though most of her part was cut but is still pretty great)? Are all given enough attention to suspend my disbelief completely for hours. So much so; that I say that even when it's cutting edge dulls, they'll still teach lectures on the film's ability to say so much with the tiniest ape facial tick.

Of which, the most belong to Caesar's heavily crowned head. Only Caesar was raised by humans and only he understands that the invading human tribe only want their hydro-electric dam (THAT'S vaguely familiar) for energy and little else. Caesar is in charge because he's the only one of two apes that has any sense of foresight. He knows engaging in violence, even defensibly, will eventually spill buckets of innocent blood. But where he shows restraint, his followers see weakness, and Koba sees an angle.

The scarred lifetime lab rat has love for Caesar, but only until he sees his opening. His campaign of manipulation is the highlight of the film and is delivered in a surprisingly subtle and multifaceted performance by Toby Kebbell. The man manages to turn two words "human" and "work" into a riveting monologue and that's no sh*t.

Yes, this is ridiculous and no, I don't care what you think.

Elsewhere, Gary Oldman is fine as the hardline human leader, doing the typical Oldman special. Which is finding depth the written role hardly provides. Though that scene with the war torn apple tablet was pretty special, I'll give the script that one.

But for me to call a movie "great" I need to have my expectations exceeded. Sure I knew Caesar couldn't keep the peace and maybe I should have seen Koba's ultimate betrayal coming 10 miles away. The point is, the most interesting part of the film is the final act and this is the exact sentence I stop talking about it.

The finale rocks and the ending finds that tricky middle ground of setting up a sequel while managing to actually end. I'm looking at you, Catching Fire. I'm also shaking my head, Catching Fire.

But yes, the film is great. It's got a bigger heart than I expected and more in depth world building than I thought it would. I mean, I would love to frame and hang the concept art of Caesar's village on my wall. But in short, this is the big budget humanist sci-fi film I've wanted to see for a very long time. I liked Rise, quite a bit actually, but Dawn is operating on a whole different level. It answers questions about storytelling I never thought to ask. Questions like, "Is political turmoil exponentially more compelling when told through the lens of genetically altered primates?"

Yes. The answer is yes.

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