Friday, September 25, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

at 3:00 PM
Here we are after seven movies, finally caught up on Planet of the Apes. Since DAWN is only a year old, I figured I'd remind everyone that, as always, this post contains full plot spoilers.

Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver

DAWN OF THE POTA in one sentence:
Yourself: I would guess I'm only the millionth person to say this, but this must be the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK of the Apes saga.

Golem: A zombie thriller, except instead of zombies they're apes, but I don't mean that people turn into apes.

Here's a story about me and DAWN OF THE POTA:
Yourself: Golem and I took on this series last summer in the run-up to DAWN, then proceeded to never actually go see it. Thankfully it made 8 trillion dollars even without our 26.

Golem: I always mix up the titles to RISE and DAWN. It seems to me this is about the rise of the apes, not about their dawn. It's the RISE OF THE APES OF THE PLANET.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: We could definitely use more development of the ape characters. Caesar and Koba are great, but how come Maurice and Caesar's wife (did she have a name?) don't get more playtime? Maurice connecting with the quiet artsy kid seemed like it could be really interesting... then he never gets another character beat. The scarcity of apersonalities is particularly felt when Koba's betrayal knocks the good guys out of the picture. At that point we're whittled down to Blue Eyes, whose teenage angst finally gets a minute to be interesting before he once again loses center stage.

What's particularly frustrating is that we're in the second film of Planet of the Apes, yet the script is so damned conservative about letting the movie just be about apes. That we have a chimp with teenage angst shows how willing DAWN is to invest in these characters. But for some reason that's offset by a human with teenage angst, and one who lost a wife just like Caesar, and etc, because despite the bleakest reality ever, we need to be literally reminded at every turn that humans deserve another chance. Fucking commit to being a genre movie, DAWN. Mirroring every single ape dynamic with a human feels like the movie doesn't understand metaphors, or doesn't think I do. Or has an extra 40 minutes of running time that it doesn't know what to do with because it's 2014 and that's what blockbusters do.

Golem: To DAWN's credit, it opens with a cool ape hunting scene. Apes swing through forest trees, spear elk (I think they were elk?), and eventually stare down and fell a bear. And even when humans enter the picture, their first encounter is gripping, since both sides are confused and scared. From there, however, things get mired in trivialities: the film goes for deep, long-brewing tension, but instead I come to feel at ease as humans try to fix a dam in ape territory. The whole plot lacks a certain focus or punch to it, and I can't help but feel like Yourself's commentary above (so many characters, so little attention!) results in a movie mired in complexity.

That said, there are sparks of personality on both the human and ape side of things. Apes don't always just listen to whoever screams loudest. Also, the plot structure pulls mean twists at just the right moment. For instance, Caesar's newborn happily plays with the small band of humans. I know something bad is about to happen, but it's still gut-wrenching when the newborn accidentally uncovers a human gun and gets our heroes kicked out.

If someone told me DAWN had an interesting plot, I'd tell them it was boring; if they said the plot was boring, I'd say it was interesting.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Grimdark monkeys. RISE was equally serious, every bit a horror movie except that it wasn't. The villains were cruel and the apes were unpredictably demonic avengers, but it was a jailbreak story with bursts of violence driven by necessity and soothed with righteousness. DAWN spins a far greyer yarn, pitting beleaguered apes against beleaguered humans with extinction at stake. The utter gravity of it all becomes so dire it almost gets back to being funny. But definitely does not.

The weight put into the premise makes me all the more willing to invest in Caesar's fall, but does an action adventure really need to feel this miserable? Even EMPIRE STRIKES BACK has a Frank Oz puppet fighting a robot for a cookie. I desperately needed a splash of comic relief. A splash of comic relief that doesn't end in a dude getting shot in the face.

That was actually tone, not aesthetic, but sometimes I get tired of writing about set colors. Here: the range of background ape tech isn't as insane as what we had to stomach in BATTLE, but there are some (humorously) eyebrow-raising selections. The only thing that actively annoyed me were those surgical masks made out of bone or roots or something, because come on, what the hell is that.

Golem: An overgrown post-apocalypse. If you told me that this was the monkey episode of The Walking Dead, I would believe you.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: Before we take on the obvious, let's take on the Gary Oldmanvious. His Dreyfus is basically functional as a charismatic leader just barely holding it together, but with Oldman I was expecting something more aggressive, more of a Governor Kolp. I feel like there's an Oldman character I didn't get to see between that starting point and the finale, when he's suddenly a fragile psycho willing to suicidally martyr himself "for humanity".

The apes are of course amazing. I don't know how to properly express it, but Caesar just has cool expressions. Just seeing him smirk feels like a moment. Koba too. The flick-on/flick-off 'monkey mode' he uses to deceive the armory guards fantastically illuminates just how human the apes have become. Creating such a disconcerting context for a chimp to act like a chimp is well-earned showing off for the animators. Possibly the greatest emotional charge in the movie is when Caesar puts Koba in his place and we get a face of the defeated ape's face, beaten and bloodied, mixing shock, humiliation, and supplication.

The combination of sign language and truncated shouting for ape communication works extremely well; it's stylish, dictates tone, and reinforces the focus on the stunning facial animation.

Golem: Koba makes a fantastic villain. While his mistrust of humans is a serviceable motive, he's truly interesting because he evolves. He starts the film openly defiant of Caesar and visibly frustrated. Eventually, he sneaks away to survey the nearby human camp. It's a subtle deception, but in this moment he is manipulating what Caesar knows. Then, Koba comes into his own when humans find him in their armory. At first you can see his alarm, but in moments, he hides it behind a stereotypical ape facade: playing dumb. It's an outright, self-aware lie. I got a kick out of following ape society in this film, since it's hard to tell how advanced they are. I didn't expect Koba's ability to lie, and neither do the humans in the armory.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: The hunting scene that kicks off the movie post-credits show a really impressive efficiency of direction and writing, establishing everything we need to know about the characters in a quick action sequence almost void of dialogue. (Fun story: I didn't realize the movie had a subtitle track, so it wasn't until ~10 minutes in that I realized the sign language was meant to have subtitles. I almost like the opening better when I was guessing what the signs meant.). We see a form of organization, with a large cadre led by Caesar (the notion of civilization is reinforced when Caesar chastises Blue Eyes for breaking from the group). We see apes have adopted human technology like sign language, weapons, and some kind of war paint. We see they're operating completely in the wilderness. We see Koba is now Caesar's right-hand man, and we see Blue Eyes is a rebellious teen. But the scene also emphasizes its characteristic ape-specific action, right off the bat digging into its unique niche and proving it isn't just an arbitrary conceit.

I was also impressed that they worked in Blue Eyes getting a distinguishing scar. It's a classic monster movie trick, where an individual in a roughly homogeneous species is given a recognizable physical trait to set them apart (for lack of anything better coming to mind, see the grid-alien in AVP). Although, truth be told, I was probably more impressed with myself for immediately picking up on the technique.

Golem: Koba's judgment of Ash showed some camerawork that drew me in. When Koba stops a human in a stairwell, it's played like another moment in the battle. However, he takes this opportunity to test trust - he's intelligent enough to know that just yelling doesn't make apes follow you, and he knows personally how to betray a leader. He commands Ash to bash a human's head in. When Ash refuses, Caesar grips him, lugs him up the stairs, and hurls him off a balcony to the floor below. The camera has a great sense of flow in the scene, following Koba up the stairs, panning to give a shot of Ash flying off the edge, and leaving you to imagine Ash's fatal landing.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: Perhaps more than any Apes since the original, DAWN is principally interested in the nature of civilization, the dividing line between man and beast. Caesar balances his kingdom on the virtue of trust: faith that apes will naturally always work together toward good. Ape does not kill ape because apes are innately good. Koba indulges in this illusion as a means of burying his deep-seated anger and hatred: he has faith that Caesar can succeed. Koba's loyalty is set directly against his animal emotions when Caesar asks that the apes trust humans, overwhelming rage ultimately proving that his role in civilization was a facade. That anger unleashed consumes the apes like the fire set to their homes (or the simian flu to mankind), and ultimately Caesar can only vanquish Koba by accepting that there is no absolute trust - that he must be killed. Blind faith in apekind cost Caesar paradise, but sacrificing that value doesn't bring it back.

Golem: The film opens with a hunt, where the division between good and bad is stark. In order to sustain yourself, you kill. The rest of the film pushes its characters to the point where they compromise their values for self-preservation. Carver has no value above self-preservation, and he conceals guns against Malcolm's orders. Koba doesn't either, and he plans to backstab Caesar at the first sign of weakness. On the other hand, Caesar forsakes his "ape shall not kill ape" only when Koba is beyond compromise. Even in Malcolm's last stand, though, he puts himself at risk for his friends. We don't see his breaking point.

Note to future self on watching DAWN OF THE POTA:
Yourself: In a lot of ways I think I reacted to this movie the same way others reacted to 2014's first returning franchise giant, GODZILLA. The good parts are captivating, but there are whole additional plot lines I'll always want to fast-forward through. The humans were boring. The big name actor ended up with a bit part. The headline conceit got shortchanged on time despite an overlong movie. Of course, applied to GODZILLA that reaction was trite and stupid - there the eponymous creature is a plot device meant to precipitate human drama, so extended creature action would be action pornography of the Michael Shitbay caliber. But DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES does a really good job exploring the conflict of an ape hero and an ape villain, so the humans can't help but feel extraneous. Plus, this time I'm the one saying it.

Golem: Conceptually, DAWN is interesting: one society falls as another rises. In practice, I've seen enough about the fall of humanity, and its exploration in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is unremarkable at best. On the other hand, ape society has interesting touches strewn throughout, and it's great to watch them evolve (figuratively).

BONUS! Planet of the Apes final series ranking:
#1: Great and stars Charlton Heston: PLANET OF THE APES
#2: Great but stars James Franco: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
#3: Weirdly too entertaining: BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES
#4: Self-loathing and entertaining: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
#5: Vapidly entertaining: BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
#7: Self-serious retconning crap: CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

#1: Straddles the line between goofy and thoughtful: PLANET OF THE APES
#2: Unoriginal but balls to the wall weird: BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (and such an ending!)
#3: Half the characters are interesting: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
#4: Enough wacky stuff for me to enjoy but not enough to be good: ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES
#5: Should be higher on this list but didn't grab me: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (need a rewatch?)
#6: Kinda weird, kinda thoughtful, and mostly nothing: BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
#7: Made Ricardo Montalban jump out a window: CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Come back next week to find out what Greg and Greg think of PSYCHOOOOOOOOOO!

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