Film review: Monkey schools man in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Apes outshine humans both digitally and dramatically in the latest installment of the Planet franchise. Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Apes outshine humans both digitally and dramatically in the latest installment of the Planet franchise. Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Confession time: My favorite movie of all time is the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, and it breaks my heart that it doesn’t appear on more Best Of lists. Boasting a script from the eternally relevant Rod Serling, it channels the best aspects of “The Twilight Zone” into a feature-length idea. PotA has it all: the humor, the humanism, the terrifically forced metaphors, the theatrically elevated dialogue. Along the way, it never misses an opportunity to address every single sociopolitical implication of its story, tackling institutionalized dogma, valuing order above justice, and man’s conflicted nature all in one go. It’s wonderful. The film series that followed carried this political torch for better (Escape from the Planet of the Apes) and worse (Battle for the Planet of the Apes), referencing nuclear war, racism, fascism, corporatism, revolution, and reconciliation. (We won’t speak of Tim Burton’s crime against cinema that could only half-heartedly muster a dinner conversation about animal rights.)

After the surprising critical and commercial success of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a new tone was set. No camp, no overt metaphors, no ironic self-referencing (save for the apes’ names). Only Christopher Nolan-esque morality tales that play like a visual companion to a college ethics textbook. It works for the most part, but there are two things wrong with the reboot’s sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and they keep it from being the movie it could have been. First is the predictable Hollywood pacing, which forces the film’s technical and dramatic achievements—including making us care about CG apes—to pause for every stale plot point. The second flaw is the humans, who lack even a fraction of the character and motivation of the apes.

Everything else should be considered a success. Advances in motion-capture technology allowed director Matt Reeves to film ape actors on location rather than in front of a green screen, so performances across the simian spectrum are grounded in a way most CG blockbusters lack. The apes’ language—a mix of evolved sign language and speech—is far more engaging than anything that comes out of Gary Oldman’s mouth. Their utopian society—troubled from the moment they talk about humans—is visually and emotionally gripping, to the point that I’d be willing to watch a regular, blood-free drama set in their world. Each ape has a distinct personality, motivation, and mode of behavior, and they all look and behave incredibly natural.

So it’s a disappointment every time the movie shoehorns these accomplishments into a plot involving lame, strawman, miscast humans. Following Elizabeth Olsen in Godzilla,Dawn is the second summer blockbuster to waste a good actress (Keri Russell) on a “Please don’t go be brave and do the logistically necessary thing” wife. Her husband is bland, a do-nothing hero-by-default (the tragically miscast Jason Clarke). Gary Oldman, though admittedly decent, phones in the same performance he’s given since The Dark Knight Rises. Up-and-coming teen actor Kodi Smit-McPhee says practically nothing but likes to draw and read, two things film directors seem to think will add substance but are, in reality, just boring to watch.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a worthwhile experience, and when it excels, it’speerless. But when the story half-asses, you’ll wish they’d left human ass out of it and stuck with those damn, dirty apes.

~Kristofer Jenson

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
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Movie houses

Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6
979-7669

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
244-3213

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