Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A parable for our era

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi violence and action, and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.11.14

Given the long list of entries on the Hollywood odds-makers’ tote boards, the chances of a second cycle of Apes movies must’ve been the darkest of horses.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke, foreground) tries to forge an uneasy alliance with, from left, Caesar
(motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis), Koba (Toby Kebbell) and Maurice (Karin
Konoval), none of whom have much reason to trust humans.
And yet here we are, four decades later, three films into another incarnation of Pierre Boulle’s seminal sci-fi novel, re-shaped for a new global order.

If the original five films — from 1968’s Planet of the Apes to 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes — felt like a thinly disguised commentary on the American civil rights struggle, this new series clearly speaks to the sadly intransient warfare between Israel and Palestine, or Shiite and Sunni, or any of half a dozen other sectarian-driven hot spots throughout the world.

And, as often is true of parables, there’s little comfort to be derived from this fantasy-laden depiction of such conflict. Some battles seem doomed to continue for eternity, despite the best efforts of noble heroes on both sides.

Tim Burton probably didn’t have such high-falutin’ notions in mind, when he remade the original Planet of the Apes in 2001. No doubt that’s why 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes adopted a fresh approach, with director Rypert Wyatt and scripters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver telling a thoughtful story about the desperate — and foolish — measures that can be prompted by grief. (One hopes the impetuous scientist given a template in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein remains mostly a figure of cautionary fable, lest we foolish mortals get ourselves into even more serious trouble.)

Jaffa and Silver have returned for this sequel (threequel?), with a scripting assist from Mark Bomback, while Matt Reeves takes over the director’s chair. The result isn’t quite as relentlessly heartbreaking as was the case with Rise, nor does this new film play the human-beings-are-cruel-thugs card quite as often (for which I’m grateful).

That said, matters have moved in the grim direction foretold by the previous film’s cliffhanger conclusion, with a highly contagious (and woefully misnamed) “simian flu” wiping out all but a few scattered remnants of humanity. The ape colony founded in Northern California’s Muir Woods by Caesar, the previous film’s chimpanzee hero, has thrived; the hyper-intelligent chimps, gorillas and orangutans have built a vibrant community devoted to the democratic notion that all apes are to be cherished as equals.

And they’ve wondered, as numerous winters have passed, if human beings have wiped themselves out completely.

Definitely not, as Caesar and his brethren discover, after stumbling upon a scouting party that represents an equally large enclave of humans in downtown San Francisco. They’ve been struggling to re-build their own community, under the guidance of Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), but they can’t endure much longer without a steady source of electricity ... which, as it happens, can be supplied by repairing the circuitry in a hydroelectric dam within the apes’ realm.

You can tell where this is going, right?

Malcolm and Caesar represent the finest qualities of their respective “tribes”; both wish to work out a mutually beneficial solution. And both, sadly, are undone by more venal and reflexively racist (species-ist?) comrades.

Carver (Kirk Acevedo) represents the worst of humanity: a trigger-happy thug who’d cheerfully butcher any simians who cross his path, in part because he blames them for the plague that wiped out humanity (a wholly unfair assertion, since that “plague” began as a vaccine developed by the previous film’s James Franco, intended to reverse the effects of dementia, and merely tested on simians).

Caesar (“acted,” via motion-capture, by Andy Serkis) has an even tougher time with Koba (motion-capture performance by Toby Kebbell), a would-be tyrant who has no use for humans. These two alpha chimps have history, Koba eventually having submitted to Caesar in the previous film ... although, as we could tell, only until the earliest opportunity for revenge.

Malcolm and Caesar orchestrate a fragile truce that permits work on the dam by a small group of people that includes Ellie (Keri Russell), Carver, Foster (Jon Eyez), Kemp (Enrique Murciano) and Malcolm’s son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Caesar, meanwhile, is losing face in the eyes of his own son, Blue Eyes (motion-capture performance by Nick Thurston), who falls under Koba’s sway.

Misunderstandings mount, and are exploited by the wrong individuals. The situation turns dire, and ... well, that would be telling.

As was the case in Rise, the true star here is the utterly stunning work orchestrated by visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri and his team at Weta Digital, with an impressive assist from Serkis and the other simian “actors.” Serkis’ performance as Caesar anchors this film with a jaw-droppingly complex blend of emotions, body language and facial expressions. The Christ-like comparisons certainly aren’t accidental, with Caesar agonizing each reluctant compromise, all the while oblivious to the Judas in his midst.

Caesar’s interactions with his family and friends are far more powerful — and heartfelt — than the superficial relations between human characters. We’re told, early on, that Alexander is damaged goods, having seen “what no boy should have to witness,” according to Malcolm ... but this detail goes nowhere. Granted, Alexander forges a telling bond with an orangutan named Maurice (performance by Karin Konoval), but this also serves little purpose, once the story kicks into gear. Smit-McPhee is merely “quiet” all the time: not much characterization there.

It’s also hard to get a bead on Oldman’s Dreyfus. We’re initially inclined to believe him one of the good guys, willing to mediate when given the opportunity, which makes his behavior in the third act feel oddly out of character. This is a guy who helped build and bond a colony of survivors? Not likely, as it turns out.

It’s similarly impossible to accept Malcolm’s idiotic decision to make Carver part of the dam-rejuvenation party, given the latter’s previously demonstrated tendency toward hot-tempered violence. As presented, Malcolm is smarter than that.

The blunt truth is that Reeves isn’t much for directing his human actors, who therefore deliver rather uneven performances. Oldman is all over the map, and Clarke remains an oddly stiff and unpersuasive hero; I doubt he could talk me into changing a light bulb.

Russell fares better as a former Center for Disease Control nurse who was on hand during the failed efforts to contain the viral outbreak. Given several opportunities to make up for past helplessness, Ellie bravely seizes these moments. If our story is to be graced with only one significant human female — which, irritatingly, is the case — at least Russell gives us a good one.

I also appreciate the nod to the previous film, when Caesar visits the now deserted and overgrown suburban house where he grew up, and finds a camcorder with some footage of his younger self being coached by Franco’s Will Rodman. That’s a nice touch, delivered with appropriate poignance.

Although Jaffa, Silver and Bomback build their complex narrative to a solid and exciting climax, Reeves’ approach is far too leisurely. At 105 minutes, Rise felt just right; in stark contrast, this film is quite bloated at 130 minutes. Sorry, but nothing here justifies the additional half-hour; Reeves clearly didn’t let editors William Hoy and Stan Salfas do their jobs.

James Chinlund’s production design is excellent; it’s not his fault that we’ve already seen San Francisco demolished earlier this summer, by a rampaging Godzilla. Chinlund’s efforts are subtler here, giving us more of a Baghdad by the Bay that has gone back to nature, as opposed to being destroyed outright. The result is eerie and disquieting.

Michael Giacchino takes over the scoring reins, his themes enhancing the various moods more successfully than Patrick Doyle did in the previous film.

Although the final scenes don’t leave matters quite as dire as was the case with Rise, there’s no question that at least one more chapter awaits (in 2016, if recent announcements are valid). That’ll leave this re-booted series just one film shy of the original’s five-entry run ... and I doubt 20th Century Fox will let that stand.

At least, not as long as fans keeping flocking to see Serkis do his amazing work.

1 comment:

  1. I wanted to like this film, but had more than a few problems with it. Mostly with the incredibly naïve and stupid script. Having lived for 16 years in San Francisco, I had issues with the "reality" of this sci-fi endeavor. Where is that waterfall exactly? In Marin? Sonoma? The hydropower facility, is that supposed to be Alpine Lake near Fairfax? Maybe there's more rain in this future NorCal setting, because it looks way too verdant. An armory at Fort Point?!? Isn't that kind of far from the downtown human settlement? And what are the apes eating up there in Marin? Grapes? Apples? A massive herd of Tule elk? There are many other issues, but we'll set that aside.

    My main criticism is the utter naiveté of this post-apocalyptic screenplay. So civilization has collapsed, leaving humanity in a more primitive position, certainly without electricity, hence the urgent need to re-establish the hydropower dam. But they're still driving vehicles? Really? How are they keeping the tires inflated? Where are they getting the petrol? To travel to the dam site, why not do what the indigenous natives would have done. You know, maybe find a canoe (I'm sure they could salvage one from the abandoned REI store or something), and paddle it across the bay, and up Lagunitas Creek? No, this is America dammit, and Americans drive gawdammit! OK, we'll leave that aside for the moment. On to other issues.

    So, civilization has collapsed. Why, then, are the surviving humans gathered in the heart of San Francisco? Why aren't they scattered across the landscape, cultivating crops, domesticating animals, foraging, fishing, hunting, and gathering? Why are they residing in a tower in the city? What are they eating? OK, maybe there's enough sustenance to plunder from the derelict Trader Joes and Whole Foods. But what are they drinking? No electricity means NO water from Hetch Hetchy. OK, maybe they're getting enough water from Mission Creek or they've dammed Lobos Creek or something. A consultation with an anthropologist or someone might have helped avoid some of these silly points. OK, leave the survival thing aside. Let's move on to social relations.

    Having gained the intelligence of humans, the apes somehow evolved into some replica of human society: hierarchical (with Caesar at the summit), patriarchal, monogamous, etc. Really? Did the scriptwriters not think to read a book about primate behavior or consult with a zoologist? Meanwhile, the humans have taken to the benevolent dictatorship of scientist (?) Gary Oldman. Really? No council of elders? No military warlord? OK, whatever.

    But further on the topic of social relations: this is fundamentally a film about the clash of cultures/species. OK, what does human history tell us about what happens with cultures meet? Well, they…trade. Yes, they make war, but usually they endeavor to happily co-exist and mutually benefit. There has been far more trading and exchange than war-making; mutually destructive violence tends to only happen as a breakdown in trade relations. The apes and humans might have peacefully negotiated a way to reengage the hydropower plant, but that would make for a boring film. So we'll first prepare for war. (And the humans trust their critical weapons at the unlikely Fort Point Armory to two of their most stupid and foolish guys, who are easily duped by an ape and yield up the entire armory to the chimpanzees!)

    I could go on, but the point is made. The script is just stupid, with an overly ham-fisted attempt to create some sort of tragic Shakespearean parallel of peace/war advocates in both camps. This leaves us to wonder at the CG delights of the film, which are abundant, but aren't enough to satisfy any filmgoer above the age of 15. Stupid.