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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Release Date: 7-11-2014)

        A funny thing happens when you allow a few days to pass between first viewing a film, and subsequently writing about it. Sure, some flicks stay right where they were, stationed as beloved, loathed, or forgotten in a manner that is largely immovable. More often than not, however, a little reflection time can serve to elevate, diminish, or (most importantly) clarify the story you just absorbed. Then there's that mysterious third category, wherein initial disappointment/revery becomes muddled upon reflection, causing you to wonder where the two hour experience stops, and where your own projections onto the piece begin. That's why I've been scared about writing about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (see what I did there?); the film that plays in my head and the picture that's currently lighting up screens across the world might not be the exact same thing.

        Ten years have passed since the events of 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and they have not been kind to Homo Sapiens. The Simian Flu, briefly explained in the last film's conclusion and this one's opening, has wiped out nearly all of earth's human population, leaving enlightened ape Caesar (performed in motion-capture by Andy Serkis) ample opportunity to steer the monkey mob that flanks him into a primitive sort of social structure, with language, ethics, and culture ever-evolving within. These advancements encounter a sudden threat when a couple of apes stumble across a handful of humans on a scouting mission, forcing the newly dominant species to decide just how to deal with their former captors.

        It's pretty heady stuff, all this moral ambiguity and juxtaposition between societal genesis and extinction, especially for a movie that also features CGI chimps double-fisting AK-47s while riding on horseback. Yes, the goofiness of it all occasionally shines through, but just as with the previous chapter, Dawn is far more straight-faced than one would have thought possible with this premise. Credit spousal writing team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, here paired with Mark Bomback, for maintaining an ideal through-line between this and the script for their surprisingly cerebral initial installment. Then there's director Matt Reeves, who's visual approach to the material is worlds removed from Rise helmer Rupert Wyatt's crisp, clean, glowingly white aesthetic. Reeves is all about rainy jungle terrains that are straight out of Jurassic Park, with an extra pinch of darkness tossed on for good measure (really, another 2014 summer tent-pole is going to reference György Ligeti’s Requiem?).

        And this is exactly where my expectations, reflections, and research have undoubtably effected my final analysis. I was HUGE on Rise when it first premiered nearly three years ago, and while subsequent encounters might knock it down a peg, the film is absolutely in my top ten big budget summer flicks of the last five years. I also have a thing for Reeves; I will go to the grave defending his brilliantly creepy Cloverfield, and still think that his remake of Let the Right One In is superior to the original (and yes, I'm fully aware of how many readers I just lost with that last sentence). That's a lot of anticipation to throw onto one movie, the kind of expectations that turn the above-average into the starkly disappointing. To be completely honest, the film, as I sat in my comfy, air-conditioned theater, did not rise up to those otherworldly expectations (see what I did there?). But for whatever reason, being its enthusiastic critical response, its numerous comparisons to Hollywood classics like Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II, or its own organic growth within my brain, I've found myself at a place where I'm worried about over-compensating. The internet sure can warp a brain, can't it?

        This much I know for sure: technology wise, this is one of the most impressive offerings I've ever seen adorn the silver screen. Serkis is worthy of every drop of praise he consistently receives for being the Michael Jordan of motion capture acting, but he's nearly matched by Toby Kebbell as Caesar's untrusting foil Koba, and Karin Konoval as the emotive, I-can't-believe-that's-not-real orangutan Maurice. To be sure, there are moments when the artificial apes aren't perfect, but the way that they're almost seamlessly blended into a non-artificial environment is simply a marvel to behold. The action here, one of the low points of Rise, a film that didn't really seem that interested in blockbusters' normative shock and awe, is equally dazzling and weary-making, an epic that understands both the weight and toll of the violence it displays. I have a few gripes; Kebbell's Koba becomes a tad simplistic by the film's conclusion, and the humans once again come off a bit faceless. But this is undoubtably a strong film, and one that I can't wait to see again in order to gain a greater understanding. As of now, I'm worried about under-rating it because of my gargantuan expectations, or over-rating it because of the degree to which I've talked myself into being a through-and-through advocate for the picture. I'll go with the grade you see below, and remain EXTREMELY open to changing my opinion upon further examination.

Grade: B+

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