24 July 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has no good guys

Dawn of the Planet of the Planet of the Apes is not content with letting you root for one side or the other. It shows you, in detail, exactly why each side of the conflict is doing what they are doing, and how small misunderstanding or rash decisions can impact events in entirely unpredictable ways. It doesn't let you see one side as good guys and one side as bad guys - your in depth knowledge of the reasons for the actions that people take makes everyone a good guy with understandable motivations. And when the bullets start to fly, the slaughter on both sides feels real and horrible and completely unnecessary. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a smart film.

Set about a decade after the events of its predecessor, the Simian Flu that was last seen in an airport at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes has spread all over the world, killing the vast majority of the human population, allowing Caesar and his followers time to set up a more permanent home in the Muir Woods. There is a clear power hierarchy amongst the apes, at the top of which stands Caesar and his second in command, Koba. Meanwhile, some of the remaining humans have settled in San Francisco under the leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), attempting to rebuild the society they once knew. To do this they require the use of a power generating dam located deep within Caesars territory, which Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and a small group travels to, starting a sequence of events that, inevitably, end in all out war between ape and man. 

It is within the ape society that the most interesting parts of the film come, with the arrival of the humans into the Muir Woods causing friction between the calmer, more rational Caesar and the understandably hateful Koba. This friction creates some of the best scenes in the film, and the characters are so well developed that the finale of the film has real weight to it thanks to how much you can sympathise with the apes. The result of the final scene matters because you care about these characters, not because the film has told you that it is important.

The motion-capture work on display here is incredible. Andy Serkis (Caesar) is as fantastic and believable in this as he ever has been, but it is Toby Kebbell (Koba) who really deserves the recognition in my eyes. The apes completely come to life on screen, allowing audiences to forget that these are CGI creations and instead invest in the apes as believable characters with unique personalities. It is in the ape scenes that the film really shines - most of the time they communicate with sign language, with only important or urgent sentences spoken aloud, but more is said in the body language and facial expressions of the apes than their basic grasp of language could convey.

Unfortunately, the human element of the film is less developed. Our main human Malcolm is an understanding ape sympathiser, but he has little personality and is used as way to progress the plot rather than as an actual character. Gary Oldman's performance as the leader of the humans is great but again, his character is never developed further than basic motivation for his actions. The film seems to want the humans to provide a parallel between Dreyfus/Koba and Malcolm/Caesar, but although the characters can certain be compared, Malcolm and Dreyfus don't have any friction until the very end of the film, and although the scene where they finally do confront one another is excellent, it feels too small compared the conflict between Koba and Caesar. The humans end the film exactly as they started it, whereas the apes change and evolve over the course of the film. I feel that I would have made more sense to have had Malcolm weary or maybe even angry at the apes at the beginning before coming to an understanding with Caesar, a small change that would have allowed audiences to care about the character more as he develops. It feels strange that Dawn could succeed in creating believable, textured characters for the apes but fall so flat when it comes to the human characters.

This problem carries over into how the story develops for both groups, with character driven ape story feeling much stronger and tighter than the reactive, event driven human story. The contrast isn't jarring, but it does highlight just how little you really care about the humans in comparison to the apes, which can only be unintentional due to how hard the film tries to make you feel for them, with throw away lines about how much the humans have lost and how sad they all are littered throughout the human scenes.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continues the story of Rise and develops the films world and characters, but I would hope that the next film drops the human element of the story as much as possible, something that may have improved this film. Some people may not like the radical change in story structure from Rise as this feels like a very different movie, but hey, at least it isn't aping the first film (sorry not sorry).

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