Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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The Apes cycle continues in this film with some significant improvements, and some of the same issues, as its first installment.  Overall, it is a more even film in writing and plot than the first, though not quite as emotionally satisfying. However, the same kind of short-cuts and weak logic that propped up in Rise’s scripting are in this sequel as well.

Because I do have a litany of annoyances, let me start with what was good about the film. There is a brilliant nod to 2001 at the top of the film that really sets the tone and set my hopes for the piece. That, combined with the opening and closing frames of the movie, show a truly deft hand with story, and a real leap forward for Reeves’ (Let Me In) directing. The f/x are jaw droppingly perfect. It is getting truly amazing and scary how much you can’t tell CGI from reality anymore.

Conceptually, the way language is used is wonderful, though I could have done without a lot of the subtitling–I understand why they felt the need, but the acting was good enough that most of it was overkill and distracting (and it wasn’t even consistently applied). Despite a lot of obvious plot cliche, there were enough choices made that surprised me that kept me interested. And, overall, it is an entertaining piece that sets the stage for the third in the series, arriving in 2017.

One other interesting, subtle structure choice in the script is Clarke’s (White House Down) character. As the main human, he is not the action hero, but much more so the diplomat. Even Serkis’ (Rise of the Apes) Caesar focuses more on solving issues with discussion and compromise over violence. The story doesn’t really carry that through to its sad inevitability (in large part because the writers assumed it was inevitable), but I did appreciate the effort and gaming of the standard characters. And, for the cycle, it really was important. Also, Kebbell’s (The Escape Artist) Koba had a very nicely driven set of choices, even if they were missing a few key leaps in logic. While Smit-McPhee (The Congress) and Konoval also build a nice human/orangutan relationship, providing a glimmer of hope, it is mostly lost and forgotten in the denouement.

Since I’ve already been slipping into the frustrations, let’s go at it full bore: Having a truly stupid-in-the-face-of-facts human becoming a key motivator for the action again was frustrating. No disrespect to Acevedo, but his was one of the weakest and dumbest characters in the piece, much like the neighbor and the lab assistant in the first film. There are better ways to provide motivation than stock, convenient stupidity. Oldman’s (Dark Knight Rises) actions, for example, you can find reasons for in this sequel… at least when he starts out, if not where he ends up. But the soldier is just willful-stupid.

The main motivation, overall, is just absurd. Really, humanity=having the lights on? At least make it that they need power to save lives or something necessary. While there is a weirdly nice metaphor and point to be made going the way they did, it doesn’t work and makes the story less interesting because it is being driven by pure foolishness. Even if you buy the choice, are there really no alternatives in the Bay Area (wind, solar, methane, ??)! It  beggared imagination for me and removed legitimacy for the actions and miss-communications. Essentially, it cut the legs out from under the plot on the human side.

One last bit: though Russell (Goats) does a solid job, women are a cipher in this story. They are only there to tend to the sick and make babies. Really? I expect more from social science fiction in this era.

All of the frustrations aside, yes, it is entertaining and still maintains enough potential to make it worthwhile. It still hasn’t quite captured the level of philosophical discussion the original series did. We seem to have lost that ability in most film today. Movies try to stay comfortably in a subgenre (action, science fiction, mystery, etc.) and don’t like to have “overtones.” But this series is all about asking “what is humanity” and wondering how another species may think and act toward humanity should they battle for the same space of sentience on this planet (especially after being such poor stewards of its resources). I guess most of what’s missing is the sad irony and message of the original series. It doesn’t need to be a head-bangingly obvious message, but to ignore it is to diminish the purpose and turn it into pure silliness. A lot will depend on how it carries forward for me. This film was handoff from the first crew to the new. And the current writers and director are attached for the third installment. If they can recognize what was really good and capitalize on it, the next in the series should improve even more.

Meantime, we’ve a 2.5 hour, beautifully filmed bit of action and adventure. If you liked the first, you will like this round as well.

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