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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 11, 2014

While thinking about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I keep going back to the Transformers movies. That’s a series that only exists because the writers of the original cartoon made us care more about cartoon robots than any human character, and the films have consistently failed to deliver that connection. Meanwhile, the creative team behind Dawn said in the lead up to the film’s release that their goal was to make a movie about the Apes, Ape culture, and the creation of Ape myth.

It’s a really big idea. They want to take us through events that in the original film occurred so long ago they’re not even really history anymore. The best part about Dawn though is that the film actually delivers on that promise.

The movie opens in complete silence, then it quickly tells us the story of the pandemic that wiped out most of the human race and ushered in the apocalypse. Human civilization is practically gone and then we’re introduced to the Apes. At the start, the Apes don’t know what’s happened to humanity, and when they encounter humans again all of their preconceptions and fears about what humans can do to them creates instant tension. Since this is really the Ape’s movie, we’re drawn into the conflict between Caesar (Andy Serkis) who is willing to trust humanity again and his adviser Koba (Toby Kebbel) who is still harboring scars and hate from the abuse he suffered at human hands.

In the middle of this, we have Caesar’s son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) who has little to no concept of humans. He’s young, impulsive, and desperate to prove himself like so many young characters before him. The difference being that Blue Eyes is a CGI ape whose emotions and thoughts are conveyed to the audience by Nick Thurston’s movements in a motion-capture suit. It’s amazing, and I can’t even begin to explain how Ape-Like all of the actors manage to be.

The Ape conflict is supported by a similar tension amongst the Humans. As Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman) not only have to try to make sense of the Ape’s existence but question whether or not that existence is in and of itself a threat to them. Dawn treats both Apes and Humans with equal complexity. It’s a mixture of their mutual distrust, curiosity, and belief that they can create a better world that drives the plot, with the tension coming from a very deep seated fear of the unknown and a lust for power and dominance that Apes and Humans share.

The plot itself is interesting and filled with twists and surprises but it’s that emotional core that makes this movie so compelling. More importantly, the technological achievement that makes these movies possible is mind blowing. All of the actors behind the Apes, and Andy Serkis in particular, do more than mimic ape movement and motions, they bring raw emotion into their performances. On the human side, Gary Oldman makes some great speeches and Jason Clarke reminds us why it’s ridiculous he doesn’t get more work, but it really is the ape actors that make this so good.

Then there are the choices that Matt Reeves and his team made to make Dawn astounding. When you watch this movie, pay attention to how the camera is oriented toward Caesar throughout the story. He’s rarely not in a position of power and the times he’s not are some of the best scenes in the whole thing because he becomes so much more vulnerable and accessible as a character. In those moments, he’s not Caesar the Myth but Caesar the Ape and you feel that intrinsically.

The musical cues, the art direction, the shifts in light and the way characters move in and out of the shadows. It’s all pitch perfect, and it all helps to put us in the Ape mindset and further the very idea of “Ape Culture.” One of the things Reeves talked about in a recent interview was how they eschewed the idea of Apes wearing clothes and focused more on the ornamentation they might wear. In a scene where Caesar goes into what I would call a “woman’s hut” or a “medicine man’s hut” (it’s not clear who actually has ownership of the space), I immediately noticed that all of the healers have a face shroud that evokes surgical masks. That is a very small thing that shows how far they went to make the Apes have a believable and sensible culture. Most of these Apes were in labs, they know what surgical masks are and may even understand their purpose but the movie explicitly tells us that they appropriated this idea into their culture and made it their own.

That’s the stuff that makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes amazing.

When the people behind this movie said they wanted to make a movie about the Apes, they were not lying. This is what they wanted to do and it shows in every frame. You should put Dawn at the top of your must see list and I would highly suggest seeing it in theaters. To give you an idea of how much people enjoyed it: when the credits rolled, the theater started clapping. On the way out, I heard many people talking about how they wanted to see it again and couldn’t wait for the next installment.

Don’t wait, experience this movie in the theater. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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From → Movies

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