Friday, July 11, 2014

Movie Review: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

Sometimes there are movies that are simply awesome, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one such movie.

A sequel to 2011's Planet of the Apes reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up ten years after a manmade virus, spread via lab experimented apes, has killed most of the human population on Earth.  The small pocket of immune humans left find themselves coming into conflict with the genetically evolved apes, led by ape hero, Caeser, in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco.  To say anymore would rob you of the experience that this film has to offer, because Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of those movies that reaffirms why I love movies in the first place.

This is one of those rare films that actually transports you into another time and place for two hours and convinces you to invest in characters and struggles that are very different than your own.  It is through the magic of moviemaking that we are able to do this, but not every movie always succeeds in doing so, however Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does.

I think one of the best words I can use to describe the construction of this film is confident.  There is confidence in the way that director Matt Reeves chose to shoot many of the scenes in one shot, there is confidence in the way that the script foregoes traditional exposition for seeing rather than hearing, and there is tremendous confidence in the way that the filmmakers have used motion capture technology to realize the titular apes.

Everything about this film is phenomenal, from top to bottom.  All of the behind the scenes talent create this seamless science fiction world that is believable at every turn.  I believed for the two hours of this film that there really were talking apes and not just CG-layered men and women in motion capture suits.  A great deal of the believability is a testament to the folks at special effects house, WETA, for realizing the apes and creating texture in their hair and in their skin, selling the illusion.  However, WETA and the filmmakers could not have sold the apes without the actors portraying them.

While most people will talk about the noticeable human actors that play human characters at the fore (who are all awesome in their parts by the way), the real standout performances come from the human actors portraying the apes.  By wearing dots on their faces and special gray suits, flesh-and-blood people became flesh-and-blood apes through the magic of computer technology and animation.  Everything these actors did on set, their movement, line readings, and facial expressions, are all relayed in the ape characters, but it is the human soul behind the apes' eyes that really make these ape characters memorable heroes and villains.

Just like he was in the first film, Caeser is a sympathetic hero, conflicted by his former love of humans and his desires to keep his fellow ape safe.  Motion capture acting extraordinaire, Andy Serkis (Gollum from Lord of the Rings), continues to carve out what is quickly becoming his signature role here as Caeser.  While Gollum may have more scenery to chew on, it's with Caeser that Serkis is able to show the wells of emotion deep inside of him in ways that he's never been able to show in previous movies.  The fact that he got top billing in the credits made me extremely happy, and it's about high time the Academy recognized motion capture work and voice-over work as acting performances.

Speaking of performances worthy of recognition, actor Toby Kebbell very nearly steals the whole show from Serkis portraying the villainous ape, Koba.  Koba is the best kind of movie villain, one who is driven by more than a lust for power, but a deeply felt motivation of hatred for the humans who kept him in a cage and tortured him long ago.  Whenever Koba is onscreen, it's electric.  You don't know what the character is going to do, and that is all thanks to Kebbell's performance.  He turns Koba into a real live wire that easily rivals any recent movie villain like Loki, and if time favors this film like I believe it will, rivals the likes of Darth Vader.  When Koba and Caeser fight in a climactic battle at the end of the film, it's as awesome as any lightsaber duel or superhero smackdown.

So in case you haven't noticed, I am over the moon about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  It is the first movie this Summer that I actually felt like had transported me, and that's what I yearn for from a good sci-fi or fantasy film.  Of course, not only is it entertaining and emotionally involving, it's also a film that actually has deeper themes beneath the surface, dealing with ideas such as race and species relations, war versus peace, and the importance of family and community.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a rare kind of film, one that maybe only gets made every year or two, if we're lucky.  This is true blockbuster moviemaking, relying on story, character, and experience, more so than action bombardment.

I give Dawn of the Planet of the Apes an A+!

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