Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I'm sure even non-film buffs have noticed that Hollywood's been just a little afraid to let new ideas and fresh stories out of the gate.  Sequels, prequels, remakes, re-imaginings, "STOP, STOP, STOP," you cry!  Well... hear me out.  Not only do I like this weekend's sequel to a prequel/remake/re-imagining, but it's truly one of the best science fiction films I've ever seen. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an intense, emotional, thought-provoking, dark and heartfelt movie that exceeds all expectations and standards set by its predecessor, and especially past sequels to the Apes franchise.

It's been ten years since the humans were nearly wiped out to extinction.  A virus created in a laboratory has spread throughout the world, and only those with a genetic immunity have been able to survive. Meanwhile, Caesar (Andy Serkis), a hyper-intelligent ape who was the subject of experiments at the very same lab, has been living peacefully in the forests of what used to be San Francisco.  One day, human survivors (Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman, among others) stumble upon the ape tribe, causing a panic.  It turns out that the humans have a barely-functioning city not too far from the apes' refuge, and if something isn't done to bring peace to the two species, all out war is inevitable.

The first film in this new series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, did a great job of setting up its characters and sci-fi elements while paying homage to the original Planet of the Apes, a classic if there ever was one.  Will (James Franco) is a scientist who raises Caesar like a son, giving him love and affection until the day they are forcibly separated, causing Caesar intense rage and motivation for starting an ape revolution. Andy Serkis gave an amazing performance and Rupert Wyatt directed it fantastically. I was worried when I heard that he wouldn't be coming back to direct the sequel, but WOW did I have nothing to fear.

The writing/producing team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver helmed both Rise and Dawn, and I seriously think they could be the next great Hollywood writers (I guess we'll find out when we see Jurassic World; I think I just got excited for that).  With Rise, they craft a tight, complex, and intelligent screenplay that keeps the audience on a tightrope, making them petrified that they could fall at any moment.  The characters are all trying to do the right thing, but prejudice, grief, and insanity are constantly getting in the way.  The story has energy and a fast pace, but not a rushed one, and the writers have many thing happen through actions rather than constant dialogue (I can forgive a bit of exposition-dumping in the first act).  Fans like myself can also spot the references to other Planet of the Apes films, which is much appreciated. The less I say about what actually happens, the better.

While I'm not an advocate for CGI effects (just because they seem to be the only means of special effects movies modern films use), HOLY CRAP did the motion-capture effects look great.  I'm not saying it always looks "real," but it definitely feels real, and if you really gets sucked into the story, the effects disappear completely.  That's a testament to the effects artists as well as the actors, who had to cry and have serious conversations with people wearing tennis ball-covered green jumpsuits and dots all over their faces.  It helps that Caesar is such a great character, given a wide range of emotions that make him sympathetic, charming, and even scary. Dawn is a true achievement in visual effects, and I hope it receives all the recognition it deserves from the academy (sound design, too, is hopefully going to win this one an Oscar). Also as a side note, I saw this in a non-3D RPX theater, and I couldn't be any happier that I did.

Michael Giacchino has provided some of the best scores in recent years (the new Star Trek films, The Incredibles, Up), and here he bangs out another memorable soundtrack.  Orchestrated like a traditional film score, Giacchino homages the original Jerry Goldsmith Planet of the Apes music, but never goes quite as wild or experimental.   There also aren't any leitmotifs that are really memorable, but it still sounds better than anything in The Avengers. Go on, hum the main theme to the "greatest superhero team-up ever." I dare you.

Lastly, I'll talk about the direction, which brings the quality of the film up so much from an already high place that I just want to stand up and applaud.  Matt Reeves (Let Me In) lets shots linger, emotions register, and action play out without shaky-cam, hurried editing, or cheap close-ups.  It feels like a sincere auteur made this movie, and I hope Reeves turns out to be just that.

I couldn't help but feel like this was what Battle for the Planet of the Apes (the fifth and WORST film in the original series) wanted to be, but didn't have the budget or the time necessary to really fulfill what it needed to do; show the first interactions between the intelligent apes and the humans after the fall of civilization.  This gives people like me the movie they've been waiting for all along and didn't realize it, and gives the casual filmgoer an incredible sci-fi story and thriller that improves upon the predecessor.  If this generation of films is to be marked by Hollywood's franchise-building, brand recognition-fueled, cash-grabbing ways, then Dawn of the Planet of the Apes proves that maybe that's not always such a bad thing.